The State of Census

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The United States Federal censuses from 1790through 1940 are some of the most valuable records that genealogists use. Theyenable researchers to track families in numerous ways, including: 

  • Migration patterns (or lackthereof)
  • Size (as they increase or decrease) as children are born, grow upand move out to form their own households
  • Social and economic factors(professions, trades and real estate)

Federalcensus records are readily accessible through, FamilySearch, or evenat your local National Archives. It would be very difficult to find aresearcher who has not used these federal records. However, have you ever used Statecensus records to find your family?

State (or territorial) censuses generallyfulfilled the same purpose as the federal census. They counted people, eitherfor tax purposes or for allocation of local funding, etc. While Federal censusdata was collected during the years ending with “0,” a state census might havebeen done during the years ending with “5” or a different number. 

By examining the statecensuses provided by the U.S. census bureau, you might reach a differentconclusion altogether. Of the fifty states and the District of Columbia, onlynine states refrained from conducting a state census or special enumeration atsome point in their history. Mississippi, Iowa, Oregon and Washington top thelist with over a dozen different state conducted censuses.

All state censuses were not created equally. Forexample, both Massachusetts and Illinois administered a census in 1855. TheMassachusetts census is similar to the 1850 federal census. Each member of thehousehold is enumerated by name, age, sex, occupation, and birthplace. InIllinois, however, the state census is similar to the 1840 federal census (orearlier). Only the head of household is enumerated and family members are notedby tick marks.

While some censuses are available online, othersare not. Take New Jersey, for example. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, NewJersey conducted state censuses every ten years, starting in 1855 until 1915.Ancestry’s catalog shows only one New Jersey state census for 1895. Thisdatabase contains the digital images of the census. Family Search has threeindexes available: 1885, 1905, and 1915. Unfortunately, none of the images areonline. They are accessible on microfilm for the years 1855, 1865, 1885, 1895,1905 and 1915. The 1875 census is not available through Family Search. The onlyrepository with the complete collection of New Jersey state censuses is the New Jersey StateArchives in Trenton.

Between the availability of state censuses onlineand those that can be ordered on microfilm from Salt Lake City, mostpeople have a good chance of finding at least some of the state census records they need. However, it is simply not possible to view every state census in this manner. You can startplanning your next genealogy road trip now or you can contact researchers can find and access the state census records that you need in the numerous archives located around the world.

Deborah Sweeney is a genealogist, blogger and author of the books Dear Mother, Love Daddy and Alfred M. Dicks of Crawford County, Illinois. She is currently working on a multiyear project to transcribe and publish the World War II letters written by her grandparents You can find Deborah online at

By Deborah Sweeney, who is a genealogist, blogger, and author of several books.  She is currently working on a multi-year project to transcribe and publish the World War II letters written by her grandparents.  You can find Deborah online at, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

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July 30, 2015
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