Census Information in the Archives
A printable copy of this Guide is available here (requires Adobe Acrobat Reader).
The census was begun in 1790 as a means of doing a “head count” to determine how many representatives a state would have in the House of Representatives. A census was taken every ten years for this purpose. Earlier censuses reflect this origin by providing more limited information while later censuses provide more. Censuses are a key research resource. Besides providing information about a family, researchers can use census information to suggest other sources of information and places to look. Because most records are based on the place of residence, most often the county, identifying an ancestor’s place of residence can open the way to finding much more information.
These censuses only list the name of the head of the household; other people in the household are listed by the number of people in various age ranges, according to whether they were male or female. For example, a census may list number of males under 5, males 5-10, and so forth.
As the nation grew the government became more interested in collecting demographic information about the population. This interest is reflected in the fact that starting in 1850, every member of the household was listed by name in the census. Details about each person included such things as age, birthplace (usually a state or country) and occupation. Other details varied from one census to the next. No family relationships are indicated in these censuses so it pays to be careful about assuming too much. A wife may be a second wife, and not the mother of all the children in the family. Someone with a different last name may be a relative.
Starting with the 1880 census the relationship of each person to the head of the household was listed. Also the birthplace of each person’s father and mother was added.
Unfortunately for researchers most of the 1890 census was destroyed by fire and water damage in 1921, while being stored. Only fragments of this census remain. For some states, including Wisconsin, a census of Union veterans of the Civil War, which was also taken in 1890, survives.
These censuses continue to list the information from the 1880 census about each person in the household, their relationship to the head of the household, and the birthplace of themselves, their father, and their mother. Other details vary among the censuses. The 1900 census lists the month and year of birth for each person. Some of the census years indicate the year of immigration and citizenship status. A couple of the census years have the number of children born to each female, and how many survive. Some censuses list the number of years married or age at first marriage. The 1930 census indicates how many homes had a radio.
1950 and more recent
United States census records are subject to a 72 year privacy rule so the records are not released to the general public until 72 years have passed. The 1950 census will be released in 2022. (Other countries like Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom wait 100 years before censuses are released.) A transcript of information from a closed census record will be released to named persons, their heirs, or their legal representatives. For more information about the Age Search Service, including forms and fees, see http://www.census.gov/genealogy/www/agesearch.html.
Special Census Schedules
For certain census years special census schedules were also done at the same time. From 1850-1880 Mortality Schedules were taken. Persons who died within the year before the census was taken were supposed to be listed. Other special census schedules were also taken for various years. Ask the La Crosse Public Library Archives staff for more information.
La Crosse Public Library Archives Holdings
Online Holdings: Subscription Databases
The La Crosse Public Library Archives subscribes to two online databases of family history information.
Ancestry Library Edition
Ancestry Library Edition is available to use within the library. Ancestry is a collection of various databases containing records and information. One of Ancestry’s databases has all of the Federal Census records that are currently available. There are indexes to the names of all persons in the various censuses as well as digital images of the actual handwritten census pages. The indexes are not always correct! Census pages are old, sometimes faded, and the handwriting can be very hard to read. Ancestry also has a collection of Mortality Schedules for 1850-1880. Another collection of databases at Ancestry function as an 1890 census substitute. Ancestry has worked to collect information such as city directories, state censuses and voter registration lists to help cover the time period of the missing 1890 Federal census.
The first Federal Census that has information about the state of Wisconsin is the 1840 census. Because Wisconsin was part of the Michigan territory at the time of the census, Wisconsin information is indexed as part of Michigan Territory.
When you access Ancestry Library Edition at the La Crosse Pubic Library Archives you will first see the main page. There is a search box on the upper left hand side and, below the search box, there is a listing labeled U.S. Census Collection. When you click on this link you can either search all the census years in one search or you can scroll down the page to select an individual census year to search.
There are two search options in Ancestry Library Edition. The default is the General Search. This search will find the closest, most relevant matches and give a list of Ranked Search Results. The closest matches will be listed first on the list. When using the General Search it is usually best to start with less information and then add more in a revised search. Exact Search is the other search option. This search option requires that all search terms entered must match. Exact search allows you to do a soundex search. Soundex is a way of searching for names that sound alike but may be spelled differently, for example Smith or Smythe. The search template for each census has search options for information specific to that census. For example, starting with the 1880 census, the search templates have search options for spouse and parent names and birthplaces. As George G. Morgan says, learn how to misspell your ancestor's name. Names are easily misspelled, and nicknames and initials can be used for first names. Try different spellings and combinations and look in different ways. Use both searches. If an ancestor has an unusual first name try that alone, without the last name. If you are certain of an ancestor's location in a census year search without a name by putting in birth year, birthplace, and other information.
Printing of census information, as well as the images of the actual census pages, is available at the La Crosse Public Archives. Census images can be printed on 11 x 17 paper. Please feel free to ask La Crosse Public Library Archives staff for help with searching or printing from Ancestry Library Edition.
Heritage Quest is the other online database collection the state of Wisconsin to through their Badgerlink service and is available to all state of Wisconsin residents at home with their public library card and PIN number. From the La Crosse Public Library web page click on the Genealogy tab on the upper right hand side of the page. On the Genealogy page that comes up scroll down and click on Heritage Quest in the database listings in the right hand column. Heritage Quest’s online census collection includes digital images of all the handwritten census pages through 1930 but their indexing is not as complete as Ancestry’s. Heritage Quest only indexes the head of the household, not every member of the household. There is also no way to search for names that sound similar but may be spelled differently (using a system called soundex). Currently Heritage Quest has the following census years indexed: 1790-1820, 1860-1920, 1930 (partial only).
Heritage Quest Census Search
Basic Information - There are three ways to search the census: the basic search (fewer questions to answer) or the advanced search (easier to narrow the hits on a common name), and by page number (this is only helpful if you have an exact citation for a reel of microfilm).
Choose whichever is best for your needs.
Name search - A complete name can be entered. Remember that the index is for HEAD OF HOUSEHOLD ONLY. Not everyone in the household is indexed. Names cannot be truncated and soundex searches are not possible. Additional information such as census year and state can be entered to narrow your search.
Results are seen for the 1870, 1880, 1900, 1910, and 1920 census. The 1910 census is selected, and the names of four individuals named Theodore Roosevelt are displayed.
Click on the link on the surname for the 51 year-old living in Nassau County, New York, and the following screen appears:
Move the census image on the page by using the scroll bars at the bottom and sides of the page. Notice that the directions in the middle of the page inform you that the name for which you searched appears on one of two pages. Subpage A appears first. If you don’t find the name you need on that page, examine the names on subpage B.
To print: For best results click on "Download,” then click on "View" [in Adobe Acrobat]. Under Tools choose Select and Zoom and then Snapshot. Use the “snapshot tool” to draw a box around the part of the image to print. That part of the image will then show as highlighted. Use the print command from Adobe Acrobat to print the census page. Change properties in the “page scaling” to “fit to paper,” and choose “11x17” if you want an 11x17 page. Do not use the browser’s “Print” button.
Searching with less information - Enter as much or as little information on the initial search screen as you like. By entering only a surname on the initial search screen, you are able to see the records of all the individuals who appear on the census with that surname.
The results will give you a list of census years, and/or states, depending on your search criteria. The results for this search are shown below. It is then possible to “Expand by State” within any one year.
By clicking on “Expand by State” on the “1910” line, the results will come on the screen showing all the states that have a head of household who has a given surname.
After selecting your state it is then possible to “Expand by County,” again showing heads of household with a given surname who live in specific counties. Here New York State was expanded.
New York County was selected, and the results are listed below.
By clicking on the surname, you are able to examine the census record that shows that individual.
Browsing the Census
It is also possible to browse the census. In the top left-hand corner are two buttons – “Search” and “Browse.” If you click on “Browse,” you will get the screen shown below. As you answer each question asked, another will appear.
Once you have answered the final question (No. 4 –below), the images of the census for the chosen state, county, and township (or city) will appear on the screen. At that point you can browse from one page to the next.
Searching without a name
If you are sure of your ancestor’s location in a census year that Heritage Quest has indexed you can also use Advanced Search to search without a name. You can limit your search to year, state, county, part of county, sex, and age range (in 10 year increments). Sometimes you will see your ancestor’s name grossly misspelled but you will recognize it. This kind of search works better for rural areas.
Online Holdings: free web sites
Census information is not limited to paid databases. Some web sites have indexes, some have transcripts of the census information, and some have images.
http://www.familysearch.org/is a site maintained by the LDS (Mormon) church. Some of the resources on this site include census information. On the Family Search main page the default search is for records. Scroll down the page to select records for certain areas and click on United States. A list will come up by states. Federal census records are listed under United States. Family Search has indexes to all the census records through 1930 and has free images for some of them.
http://1940census.archives.gov/ is the site with free digital images of the 1940 census hosted by National archives partner archives.com. Soon after the release, images will also be available on http://www.ancestry.com/ and http://www.familysearch.org/. The National Archives has guides and information about the 1940 census on their site http://www.archives.gov/research/census/1940/general-info.html, including a blank copy of the 1940 census form and instructions for the enumerators who conducted the 1940 census. There is one small downside: when the 1940 census is released there will be no name index. FamilySearch is coordinating a volunteer indexing project on their site. You can volunteer here http://the1940census.com/ to help yourself, and other genealogists
Enumeration Districts are administrative divisions for the purpose of census taking, generally assigned to a single census taker (the enumerator). The only index on the release day of the census will be an index by ED (Enumeration District), which is an index by location, not by name. How do you find the person you are looking for? Steve Morse, on his helpful genealogy tool page, has created a 1940 census ED finder at http://stevemorse.org/census/unified.html. In order to locate people you can do one of two things:
1. If they are in the same location in 1930 and 1940 find them in the 1930 census. Use their 1930 Enumeration District to find the likely 1940 ED.
2. If they are not in the same location in 1930 then determine their location in 1940 and use the 1940 census ED finder to determine the EDs to search.
www.usgenweb.org is a coordinated volunteer project created to bring free genealogical information to the Internet. There are a couple of places census information might be. Click on the Special Projects link on the main page, and select Archives Project from the list that comes up. USgenweb is basically divided up by geography so you will need to look under the state and then the county to see what is available. There may be a statewide project with census information or it may all be at the county level. Since each volunteer project is different there will be different kinds of things available. The kinds of information here would likely be census indexes or transcriptions. Also, on the main Archives Project page, at the bottom of the page is a link to the census images project. This project is set up to coordinate census images and indexes. Again, it is laid out by geography of state and county.
Another place on USgenweb where census information might be are the main project pages. From the USgenweb home page click on the specific state in the list at the left. For each state there may be census indexes or transcripts at the state level. Also check the specific county within the state because there may be census index or transcriptions at the county level as well.
www.cyndislist.com/census.htm is another place to look for information. Cyndislist is a huge collection of all kinds of links to genealogy information on the Internet. The census page has links to information about each census, links to online transcripts and indexes, and other useful information.
Federal Census Microfilm
The La Crosse Public Library Archives has the following U.S. Federal Census microfilms for the state of Wisconsin available. Microfilm is film on a roll, containing images that are very small, that can be read and copies printed from by using special machines in the Archives. The disadvantage of microfilm is that census information was collected by someone walking down the street (or riding from farm to farm) so the information appears in the order in which it was recorded by the census taker. An advantage of microfilm is that sometime it is easier to read than digital images.
The La Crosse Public Library Archives as the following Federal Census microfilm of the state of Wisconsin:
1890 Union Veterans
Limited indexes to some of the census years were created, originally to help government employees do their jobs. Names were indexed using a system called soundex. The following information about the soundex code comes from the web site of the United States National Archives.
The soundex is a coded surname (last name) index based on the way a surname sounds rather than the way it is spelled. Surnames that sound the same, but are spelled differently, like SMITH and SMYTH, have the same code and are filed together. The soundex coding system was developed so that you can find a surname even though it may have been recorded under various spellings.
To search for a particular surname, you must first work out its code.
Basic Soundex Coding Rule
Every soundex code consists of a letter and three numbers, such as W-252. The letter is always the first letter of the surname. The numbers are assigned to the remaining letters of the surname according to the soundex guide shown below. Zeros are added at the end if necessary to produce a four-character code. Additional letters are disregarded. Examples:
* Washington is coded W-252 (W, 2 for the S, 5 for the N, 2 for the G, remaining letters disregarded).
* Lee is coded L-000 (L, 000 added).
Soundex Coding Guide
Number Represents the Letters
1 B, F, P, V
2 C, G, J, K, Q, S, X, Z
3 D, T
5 M, N
Disregard the letters A, E, I, O, U, H, W, and Y.
Additional Soundex Coding Rules
1. Names With Double Letters
If the surname has any double letters, they should be treated as one letter. For example:
* Gutierrez is coded G-362 (G, 3 for the T, 6 for the first R, second R ignored, 2 for the Z).
2. Names with Letters Side-by-Side that have the Same Soundex Code Number
If the surname has different letters side-by-side that have the same number in the soundex coding guide, they should be treated as one letter. Examples:
* Pfister is coded as P-236 (P, F ignored, 2 for the S, 3 for the T, 6 for the R).
* Jackson is coded as J-250 (J, 2 for the C, K ignored, S ignored, 5 for the N, 0 added).
* Tymczak is coded as T-522 (T, 5 for the M, 2 for the C, Z ignored, 2 for the K). Since the vowel "A" separates the Z and K, the K is coded.
3. Names with Prefixes
If a surname has a prefix, such as Van, Con, De, Di, La, or Le, code both with and without the prefix because the surname might be listed under either code. Note, however, that Mc and Mac are not considered prefixes.
For example, VanDeusen might be coded two ways:
V-532 (V, 5 for N, 3 for D, 2 for S)
D-250 (D, 2 for the S, 5 for the N, 0 added).
4. Consonant Separators
If a vowel (A, E, I, O, U) separates two consonants that have the same soundex code, the consonant to the right of the vowel is coded. Example:
Tymczak is coded as T-522 (T, 5 for the M, 2 for the C, Z ignored (see "Side-by-Side" rule above), 2 for the K). Since the vowel "A" separates the Z and K, the K is coded.
If "H" or "W" separate two consonants that have the same soundex code, the consonant to the right of the vowel is not coded. Example:
Ashcraft is coded A-261 (A, 2 for the S, C ignored, 6 for the R, 1 for the F). It is not coded A-226.
An online soundex converter is available from www.eogn.com/soundex (you need to scroll down the page to find the converter). You can type in the surname and the proper code will be returned. If you look at your driver’s license you will find the soundex code for your last name: generally the first “set” of digits in your driver’s license number is the soundex code for your last name.
The La Crosse Public Library Archives has the following soundex indexes for the state of Wisconsin. Each family is indexed under the name of the head of the household.
1880 Soundex for Wisconsin
Only families with children under the age of 10 were indexed
1900 Soundex for Wisconsin
1920 Soundex for Wisconsin
Wisconsin State Census
Like may states, Wisconsin took their own censuses. Most Wisconsin censuses only list the name of the head of the household; others in the household are listed in basic categories like number of males and number of females. Wisconsin took state censuses in the following years:
1836,1838,1842,1846, 1847, 1855, 1865 (mostly destroyed), 1875, 1885, 1895, 1905. The 1905 Wisconsin state census is the only census that listed the name of every member of the household.
La Crosse Public Library Archives Holdings
Online Holdings: Subscription Database
Ancestry Library Edition has an index and online images of the 1895 and 1905 Wisconsin state censuses and a limited index to the 1836, 1837, 1838, 1842, 1846 and 1855 territorial and state censuses.
Online Holdings: free web sites
http://www.familysearch.org/is a site maintained by the LDS (Mormon) church. Some of the resources on this site include census information. On the Family Search main page the default search is for records. Scroll down the page to select records for certain areas and click on United States. A list will come up by states. Under Wisconsin are indexes, and images, of the 1855, 1875, 1885, 1895 and 1905 censuses.
The following Wisconsin state censuses are available on microfilm:
Wisconsin Territorial Census 1836-1847
Wisconsin State Census 1855, 1875, 1885, 1895, 1905
An index to the 1905 Wisconsin state census for La Crosse County only is also available.
Helpful books in the La Crosse Public Library Archives for more information on the census
The 1930 Census: a research and reference guide / ed. Thomas Jay Kemp, 2002.
The American Census Handbook / Thomas Jay Kemp, 2001.
929.1072073 K32A 2001
Finding Answers in U.S. Census Records / Loretto Dennis Szucs and Matthew Wright, 2001.
929.1072073 SZ 71F1
Your Guide to the Federal Census for genealogists, researchers and family historians / Kathleen W. Hinckley, 2002.
Census Substitutes and State Census Records: an annotated bibliography of published name lists for all 50 states and state censuses for 37 states / William Dollarhide, 2008
929.1072073 D69c 2008 v.1 (Eastern States)
929.1072073 D69c 2008 v.2 (Western States)
State Census Records / Ann S. Lainhart, 1992.
Click here for a printable copy of this Guide (requires Adobe Acrobat Reader).
updated 3/15/2012 by mi