U.S. Federal Census Questions Asked thru the Decades

Post by Vicki Ruthe Hahn  May 27, 2016 (with information from the Census sites):

The United States Federal Censuses, taken every 10 years, are one of the main tools that we as genealogists have to trace our ancestors.  It is mandatory by law that we have to answer the questions put to us each decade by the U.S. government Census Enumerators.  (Hence our luck in frequently finding those that had to answer the Census questions in previous decades.)

The Federal census was put into law starting 1790 as a way for the government to fulfill the U.S. Constitution’s requirement to count the population so that it could be determined how many government representatives each area was entitled to elect.  It has been a complex operation since the first census in 1790.  The American Community Survey (done every five years) is part of the decennial census.  In 2005 it replaced the “long form” that previously was sent to a percentage of households once every 10 years.

These censuses have been invaluable for us to be able to “find” our ancestors, regardless of how people have felt about answering the questions on them.  In fact, your ancestor in the earliest censuses may only be represented by a tick mark.  Genealogy is more and more the balance between “hurrah, I found my person”, and “oh no, my information is not private”.  (I do suggest that you might want to keep your living ancestors as “private” on public family trees, as well as any relatives that have died within the last three years.  (See my BLOG Post on The U.S. Social Security  Death Index SSDI.)

This Post may answer some of the common Census questions we hear from folks –

  • What have all the boxes and columns meant on census records?
  • What questions did they ask and when?
  • Why would the Government ask for such information? i.e. when they immigrated?, why keep track of who was married and who not?,  and why ask that question if it is just a child?
  • How can you read the small writing on the Census forms?
  • It is one of those things that should be self-explanatory that I always wondered about, and don’t want to look ‘stupid’ for asking.

Many countries have federal censuses, and several states (including Wisconsin )  have had state censuses as well.

Wisconsin State Census Records

Wisconsin Census Information:

Wisconsin Federal Census Records were taken for the following years: 1840, 1850, 1860, 1870, 1880, 1900, 1910, 1920 & 1930.

The 1890 Wisconsin Special Veterans and Widows census schedules survived the fire.

The Wisconsin State census was taken for the following years: 1855, 1865 (partial), 1875, 1885, 1895, 1905 (entire state).

The state censuses are available at:

The State Historical Society of Wisconsin
816 State Street
Madison, Wisconsin 53706-1488

A Wisconsin Territorial Census was taken for the following years: 1836, 1838, 1842, 1846, 1847.

State and federal censuses, can be found on databases like Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org.  The questions (in small print) on the original Census forms, and the hand-written hard-to-read answers have been transcribed and indexed on those databases as well. Hint – always “view” the original as well as the index, as the link may not be correct, or there may be uncorrected information on the transcribed index.  I can’t tell you how many times this has helped my research.  It also gives you a chance to send a “problem” report to the database so they can correct the mistakes.

We have the Wisconsin Census records for Rock County on microfilm at the Library.  Or search here:


Front-line Experiences of a U.S. Federal Enumerator:

In 1990, I was an U.S. Federal Enumerator -the interviewer that went to folks homes to clean up any procrastinators who had not responded to the mailed forms.  It was a very interesting study of human nature.  Some thanked me (because they felt guilty about not getting to it), and some cursed me or had violent reactions (because they did not think it was anyone’s business what they did.)  Some sneaked out the back door, until I caught up with them another time.  (The best time to find people at home was Sunday afternoons!)     One person was having a medical emergency and asked me to stay with her until the ambulance arrived.  One person, I saw three different times, and enumerated them as living at three different addresses. I found a successful rich businessman who had only a third grade education, and many families with interesting stories.  No more details than that, because I was sworn to secrecy.  Follow-up enumerators continue to go to those who do not answer… until they do answer the questions.

To help in your map searches for ancestors: the house number of a corner house may actually be the address on the street around-the-corner, on the other side of the house.  Also, a named street may have two sets of house numbers – i.e. odd numbers on the river bluff/hill street above, and even numbers on the physically separate lower street below it, by the river.

We have some books in the Beloit Public Library Genealogy and Reference collections that detail the census questions asked, and show maps and statistics of the results.  You can also find more information by clicking the following links to the United States Census.

“Index of Questions:

The first censuses counted the population and provided information on population by county. In 1790, the census also categorized white males by age: those under age 16 and those age 16 and older. Over the years, Congress has authorized additional questions, enabling us to better understand the nation’s inhabitants and their activities and needs. In fact, one of the nation’s founders, James Madison, suggested that the census takers ask additional questions that would help lawmakers better understand the needs of the nation.

For example, the 1810 Census also collected economic data (on the quantity and value of manufactured goods). In 1850, the census began collecting “social statistics” (information about taxes, education, crime, and value of estate, etc.) and mortality data. In 1940, additional questions were asked of a sample of the population, including questions on internal migration, veteran status, and the number of children ever born to women. These questions helped society understand the impact of the Great Depression.

Through the decades, the census has collected data on race, ancestry, education, health, housing, and transportation. An examination of the questions asked during each census illustrates changes in our nation’s understanding of race, the impact of immigration, growth of the Hispanic population, and computer usage. As a result of the census’s evolution, the constitutionally mandated census has grown to provide important information about the U.S. population and its housing. Coupled with data from the economic and government censuses and demographic and economic surveys, the U.S. Census Bureau provides governments, scholars, planners, businesses, and individuals the data they need to build schools, plan highways, open businesses, and distribute the billions of dollars in federal spending that sustains a growing population.”

(More detailed Census questions and instructions to the Enumerators for each decade are available through this link. The U. S. Federal Census Index of Questions 1790- 2010 https://www.census.gov/history/www/through_the_decades/index_of_questions/

U S Federal Census quicksheet

The history of all United States Federal Censuses (of any kind) from 1790 – 2016 are here at https://www.census.gov/history/

The Census Bureau has many publications about the censuses that you can view or download as PDFs at https://www.census.gov/history/www/reference/publications/

Historic census records from 1790 to 1940 are maintained by the National Archives and Records Administration, not the U.S. Census Bureau.
Visit the National Archives Web site to access 1940 Census records—http://1940census.archives.gov.

Decennial census records are confidential for 72 years to protect respondents’ privacy.

Records from the 1950 to 2010 censuses can only be obtained by the person named in the record or their heir after submitting form BC-600 or BC-600sp (Spanish).

Online subscription services are available to access the 1790–1940 census records. Many public libraries provide access to these services free of charge to their patrons.

(Beloit Public Library has Ancestry.com Library Edition available in the building, and HeritageQuest available on our homepage beloitlibrary.org,  from any computer in Wisconsin.  http://www.ancestryheritagequest.com/hqa

From the 1940 census through the 2000 census, a subset of all Americans received a “long form” containing additional questions.[2]

Many Americans found filling out the long form to be burdensome and intrusive, and its unpopularity was a factor in the declining response rate to the decennial census.  (Note my experiences an as Enumerator.)

In 1994, the Bureau began the process of changing the means of obtaining the demographic, housing, social, and economic information from the census long form to the ACS.[3] Testing began in 1995, and the ACS program began producing test data in 2000, 2001, and 2002.

The survey was fully implemented in 2005. The following year, the Census Bureau released estimates for all areas with populations of 65,000 or more using the data collected from January to December 2005. In 2010, the ACS produced its first set of estimates for areas of all population sizes, using information collected from January 2005 through December 2009.

Is the American Community Survey Mandatory?

Yes. The ACS is a mandatory survey.
The ACS is a legitimate, mandatory survey sent to a small percentage of our population on a rotating basis. You are legally obligated to answer all the questions, as accurately as you can.

The relevant laws are Title 18 U.S.C Section 3571 and Section 3559, which amends Title 13 U.S.C. Section 221.

Your answers are important. As part of a sample, you represent many other people.

Why is the ACS mandatory?
Response to the survey is mandatory because the American Community Survey is part of the decennial census, replacing the “long form” that previously was sent to a percentage of households once every 10 years

“Are the American Community Survey (ACS) 5-year estimates as reliable as the Census 2000 long form data?

The American Community Survey sample over a 5-year period is smaller than the Census 2000 long form sample.  In addition, while Census 2000 followed up with ALL nonrespondents who did not mail back their questionnaire, the ACS follows up with a sample of nonrespondents who do not respond by mail or telephone.   As a consequence of these design differences, ACS estimates are usually less precise (or reliable) than corresponding estimates from the Census long form.

However, precision (or reliability) is only one of the factors that affect the overall quality and usability of sample survey estimates.  Other important factors include overall unit response, data completeness, and how well the sample covers the target population.  Evaluations show that the ACS is about the same or better than the Census long form with respect to these three factors.  ACS response levels have been consistently high at the national across all major population groups.  Data completeness and population coverage are generally higher for the ACS compared to the long form.  Overall, the loss of reliability in the ACS estimates is offset by improvements in other measures of quality.”

Now we all know more about censuses.






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