top of page

A Letter to the Genealogists of the Future

Dear Descendants,

2020 has been a year for the record books. No doubt, your history teacher spent at least an hour discussing the tumultuous year during your American or World history class.

As 2020 approached, I anxiously awaited my call from the US Census Bureau to see if I would play a part in the decennial population census. You see, I have been utilizing census records for the better part of three decades to research the lives of my ancestors. I was excited to see the process from the other side of the fence.

After fits and false starts, I finally got the call at the end of July. It was a daunting task, we only had until 30th September to count everyone who had not submitted their census questionnaire by mail or online. Mail-in census questionnaires began with the 1960 census, but this was the first year that responses were accepted over the internet. I would like to say that people in America responded with a record turnout, however, the national self-response rate (households who responded to the 2020 Census online, by mail, or by phone) was only 66.6% (as of September 30th). As so often the case, many do not know what the census is, why it is so important, or why they should bother.

A Bit of History

Most who attend school in the United States learn, at an early age, the Preamble of the Constitution. "We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for a common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

Most of us, however, do not know the detail of the document itself. No judging. Just a fact. We all spend much of our lives collection information that seems meaningless to our day to day that we simply forget the details. After all, who has time to read the whole document?

We don't have to read very far into the document, in fact in Article 1, Section 2 we find what we are looking for, "Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons. The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct." (Constitution of the United States of America 1787, emphasis added).

So, a decennial population census was created in the U.S. to determine individual states/territories representation in Congress. That is how the House of Representatives got its name. "The Number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand, but each State shall have at Least one Representative...".

The first census in 1790 had only six questions on gender, race, relationship to the head of household, name of the head of household, and the number of slaves if any. Enumerators were U.S. marshalls who asked questions of residents from the original 13 states plus the districts of Kentucky, Maine, and Vermont, and the Southwest Territory (now Tennessee). We've come a long way since.

1800 US Census for Thomas Dawson, my husband's 4th great-grandfather and family

Unfortunately, the 1790 census was lost for Delaware, so the earliest census we have in our family is the 1800 census above. Thomas' father passed away in 1796 and his son Joseph W wasn't born until 1808, so we only have one generation accounted for. Thomas was approximately 10 years older than his wife, they had one daughter, one other young woman, and two slaves living in their household in North West Fork Hundred, Sussex County, Delaware. As a genealogist, this information is helpful but only with other substantive records.

Over the subsequent years, the census became a way for the U.S. Government to collect statistics beyond the population count. These statistics assist in the allocation of federal funding to communities across the country for hospitals, fire departments, school lunch programs, and other critical programs and services.

I would be remiss if I didn't discuss the years between 1790 and 2020. In 1849, the U.S. Department of the Interior took the census responsibility from the Secretary of State. In 1850, the census listed all free persons in the household by name. In 1860, the census enumerates Native Americans not living on tribal lands in their racial category. 1870 was the first year that every person living in a household was listed by name. Many times, this is the first instance where African-Americans will see their ancestor's name written, whether they were 4 or 84. In 1880, specially trained supervisors and enumerators replaced the U.S. marshalls. In 1900, the U.S. Census Bureau (after only a hundred + years) finally becomes a permanent department within the Department of the Interior but was relocated to the U.S. Department of Commerce and Labor the following year. In 1920, the census returns showed the movement from rural areas to urban cities. The following year, most of the 1890 census returns were destroyed in a basement fire at the Commerce Department Building.

Photograph of Commerce Department Building

The cornerstone of the first National Archives building in Washington DC was laid by President Herbert Hoover in 1934. One day later, Congress authorized the destruction of the remaining 1890 census records.

Hindsight is 20/20 after all. In 1942, the Census Bureau moved its headquarters to Suitland, Maryland, and transferred most of the census records to the National Archives. The National Archives then opened all census records to the public up to and including 1870. This established the de facto 72-year rule.

The next decennial census to be released (April 1, 2022) will be from 1950. This was the first enumeration of Americans abroad, including U.S. armed forces and federal civilian personnel. It will give many genealogists great information, but surprisingly less information than we found in the 1940 census, no information on whether they owned or rented their home, no home/rent value, no informant information, no information on schooling or prior residency (except those who are selected for sampling questions). 1950 is the last time the citizenship question was asked.

Neither of my parents will be enumerated yet, as my father was born in June of 1950 and my mother, not until 1951. I will, however, be right there with the rest of my genealogy colleagues on April 1, 2022, reviewing the enumeration districts of my relatives so I can search for those that were born between April 1, 1940 - April 1, 1950. If you are interested in learning more about the 1950 census, check out a paper by Stephen P. Morse (One-Step Webpages) and Joel D. Weintraub called Getting Ready For The 1950 Census.

In 1960, the U.S. census was sent via mail to populations living in urban areas before the enumerator visited so they could review the questions ~ no idea if this sped up the process or not. In 1970, the question of Hispanic-origin was asked of 5% of the population (only on the long-form), not specifically as Spanish-origin was not a common term in the 1970s. The question asked about “origin or descent”: Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central or South American, Other Spanish, None of These. Not surprisingly, since the question was unclear, some Hispanics did not identify themselves. This hasn't been clarified in the 2020 census as the question of origin and race were separated and Hispanic/Spanish/Latino was not considered a race.

In 1980, 95 percent of U.S. households received a mail census questionnaire they could return via the mail. In the 1990s, technology took another step forward with the Topologically Integrated Geographic Encoding and Referencing (TIGER) system which created a digital geographic database of the nation. 2000 brought more than just Y2K, as multiple responses to the race question were finally permitted (yes there had been multi-racial people living in the United States for hundreds of years, but they were finally allowed to report it) and the annual American Community Survey replaced the decennial census long form. 2010 was another landmark year for finally recognizing relationships that had been here the whole time when couples of the same-sex were able to report their relationships.

Fair warning to the genealogists of the future in 72 years (April 1, 2092), the 2020 census will be released to the public. There won't be as much need for transcription as everything was entered digitally, either by an enumeration, such as myself or by the informant. So the information should be readily available. You may find the informant (if self-reporting) was not the informant as I found when I reinterviewed a man in August. The husband was the informant on record, but it turned out he knew nothing of the census and I suspect his wife may have filled out the form and submitted it without his knowledge. Additionally, many questions were controversial this year, and therefore, respondents chose not to answer. There were other nuances, such as neighbors don't know their neighbors anymore (which I suspect will be a challenge for all the modern census records).

All in all, I met some amazing people in my community and will be on the lookout for those friendly faces when I'm out and about in town. Looking forward to 2022 and beyond.

41 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page