Skip main navigation

£199.99 £139.99 for one year of Unlimited learning. Offer ends on 28 February 2023 at 23:59 (UTC). T&Cs apply

Find out more

Introducing the major types of sources used in genealogical research: Part 2

Video introducing the major types of sources used in genealogical research: Part 2 - Census records
OK. Looking now at census records, again, not every country has taken a census or have census records that actually track individuals’ names, which as genealogists is what we’re interested in– being able to identify individuals and find out information about them. Some countries just have statistical censuses that count up people, and that’s all the information you can get. But if you’re lucky, you’ve got a census that you can find a household or a person of interest. Censuses are usually created by government agencies, although they can also be created by churches. In the past, churches have done censuses as well. But the ones we’re particularly interested in are those created by governments. So again, different levels of government have created censuses.
So you can get the federal or the main government of the country, but then in certain areas, smaller things like states and provinces have done censuses. So knowing that there might be different censuses available would be of use. Then there are things that are called special censuses. The religious census– there was a religious census in 1851 done in the United Kingdom. And while that didn’t list individuals’ names, it tells you a huge amount about the local area, and how many people were going to the Baptist church, versus the established church, versus the number of, say, Jewish people in the area. It gives you some information about the place that your ancestors perhaps lived in.
Things like slave censuses– in the US, there were two years, 1850 and 1860, that the government took down names of people who were owners of enslaved people. And that took down information– not names, usually, of people who were enslaved, but how many, what ages they were, that kind of thing. So it can, again, tell you information about the community in which your ancestors lived, and if your ancestor was a slave owner, how many people they owned, and that kind of thing. And other types of censuses, as well– mortality ones, how many people died in the last year, that kind of thing. So the census questions that are asked really reflect the interests of the government.
And the census questions can vary wildly from year to year. But you tend to get usual ones– names, ages, and in households, units. But other questions, as I say, can vary. So you get information for one year. From what place in the world did your parents come from? What religion are you? What religion were your parents? Interestingly, Canada for a number of years asked questions about what type of insurance did you hold. In Scotland, how many windows, how many rooms with windows did you have in your house. So all of these interesting questions can really shape and inform the information that you find about your family.
But at the core, what censuses tell the government is how many people were about, i.e. how many people do they need to feed, and that type of thing. But what we get from them, as well as demographic information, we get information about the ages of the people in the household, and the sex, are they male or female. Usually we get information about occupations, what they did. And they can be used by governments to apportion funding, and in some places the number of legislators in a particular area, so very, very important records, both for governments but also for us as genealogists.
This is an example of an American census, a federal census, taken in the 1900, from Portland, Oregon. And in this– this is one of the censuses from the States, where they’re asking about where your parents were born. The US being a country of immigrants, was very keen to know how many people were born within the country, and born to people who were also born within the States, that kind of thing. But the other lovely thing about this particular census is it gives you the month and the year in which someone was born. And that’s genealogical gold for tracking down when someone was born. Lots of other information here, too– could they read, could they write– good things.
So one other important thing to note about censuses, before I move on, is that it can very much vary from country to country, as to who was represented in a household unit. For many years, in the United Kingdom, it was who actually was sleeping in a place on the night that the census was taken. And that’s who would show up in the census. So if you don’t find someone within that household, don’t just assume that they’ve died in the last 10 years. It may be that they’re off staying with their grandmother, or they’re on holiday, or off working somewhere else.
But that’s different from other countries, where you may find people who were normally residents in a census being put down, whether or not they were there on that night or not. So it really helps to know how things were taken, why they were taken, in order to inform what it is you’re actually seeing. So just to recap, three major records, civil, church, and census– these are all very fundamental sources for genealogists. But don’t forget that other ones are important as well. And there are just a vast, myriad of other sources– passenger lists, wills, military service records, passports, the list goes on. But these are the three key sources to know about and to find yourself using.
I encourage you to all get out there and start using them. [CHUCKLE] Thank you very much.

This video is in two parts and this second part considers census records which is a major source for many areas of the world.

We look at what type of information they typically contain and why they are so crucial.

Some countries have not taken censuses that are of use to genealogists or have not kept genealogically useful information created by the census. For these countries we can use ‘census substitutes’ and we’ll introduce a few of these.

The document featured in this video can be found in the ‘Downloads’ section below.

This article is from the free online

Genealogy: Researching Your Family Tree

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Our purpose is to transform access to education.

We offer a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. These are delivered one step at a time, and are accessible on mobile, tablet and desktop, so you can fit learning around your life.

We believe learning should be an enjoyable, social experience, so our courses offer the opportunity to discuss what you’re learning with others as you go, helping you make fresh discoveries and form new ideas.
You can unlock new opportunities with unlimited access to hundreds of online short courses for a year by subscribing to our Unlimited package. Build your knowledge with top universities and organisations.

Learn more about how FutureLearn is transforming access to education