Since 1790 to the year 2010, the United States Government has collected census information every 10 years to document the people residing in the country at the time of the enumeration.
However, there is a 72 year privacy act so currently census records are only available until 1930 but the 1940 census will be released on April 2, 2012.
In genealogy, these records are a valuable resource for reconstructing the lives of your ancestors. The reason why is that each census schedule represents a point in time or chapter in the lives of the people listed on the schedules. Each record tells a story about the person(s), where they were and to a great extent who they were.
While the early census schedules only listed the head of household, subsequent ones also list the other members of the household.
It is important to point out that census records from 1790 to 1860 only listed free persons. Hence, most African Americans unless they were free persons of color were not listed in the Southern states. Most were not enumerated until 1870 census, 5 years after slavery ended. However, if you are African American, you should always check the prior census records anyway since your ancestors may have been a free person of color or non-black person. Also, for certain Northeast states such as Vermont, freedom came early as 1777 for African Americans so again it is important determine when slavery ended in the state where your ancestors resided.
So what can these records tell you? A whole lot. There is a wealth of history hidden in these records.
You can learn the paternity of known ancestors will may enable you to locate different branches of your family. You can also find out when your ancestors were born, where and some census records give the birth places of their parents. The names of their spouse and children, their ages and their birth order are also provided on most census records.
You can also learn the occupations of the members of the household and whether they were educated. The location where your family was living and whether or not the Head of Household owned or rented property is documented on most census records.
Again, census records are like a snapshot of your ancestors lives at a particular point in time. By locating them on multiple census records over the span of their lives, you can follow the progression and changes that occur over time with their family structure. Review of a series of records on a particular family can reveal a newly married couple, a growing family with a few children, a household full of children, the children leaving home to start their own family, empty nesters and finally widowed spouses.
Below is excerpt from a census schedule: