Compiled every decade since 1790, census "population schedules" are comprehensive, detailed records of the federal government's decennial survey of American households. Information from the schedules is used by the federal government for timely demographic analysis. The schedules themselves, of interest primarily to genealogists, contain the personal information of the survey respondents. To protect the privacy of the people whose names appear in each schedule, census records are restricted for 72 years after the census is taken, and are not available to researchers during that time.
The earliest census records contain information on people born well before the American Revolution, while the 1940 schedules - the most recent ones open to public inspection -contain information on many people who are still living. Using these records, a researcher might conceivably trace a family line from a living person down to an ancestor born more than 250 years ago.
For the years 1790 through 1840, census records listed only the name of the head of the household. Other family members were recorded by number and age. Beginning in 1850, the name of every household member was recorded, along with their age, color, occupation, and place of birth. As other censuses were taken, additional questions were added.
Finding your families in the schedules is not always easy. Parts of the 1790, 1800, and 1810 censuses were missing before filming could be done; many of the schedules are illegible due to poor handwriting, splotches, mildew, faded ink and poor filming processes; often names were misspelled or indexed incorrectly; and many people were simply missed by enumerators. Researchers should also note that most of the original schedules from the 1890 Census were destroyed by a fire in Washington, D.C. in 1921. Less than one percent of the schedules remain, so it might be difficult finding information on ancestors in that particular year.
Using maps in conjunction with the census schedules is important. State and county boundaries have changed over the years and an ancestor may have lived in the same place for years, but have been enumerated in several different counties. This is also important for urban dwellers as city precincts also changed with time. Use of city directories and books such as those listed in Guidebooks will help provide clues to possible localities.
The Eastern Washington Genealogical Society (EWGS) has complete sets of the population schedules for Washington, Oregon, Montana and Idaho for 1860 through 1930. See the EWGS Holdings Book for the schedules prior to 1860 for those states and census schedules for other states.
The library also subscribes to HeritageQuest. Note: This database is available until March 31, 2013. This database includes all the images and extensive indexing of the U.S. Federal Censuses from 1790 to 1940 plus searchable full text of 20,000 local and family histories as well as hundreds of primary-source documents. FamilySearch has Federal Census records for all available censuses, from 1790 to 1940.
Census schedules are arranged by census year. Within each year they are arranged by name of state, and, with a few exceptions, alphabetically by name of county. A researcher must know in which county the ancestor lived during the census year. State indexes may help the researcher to determine the county in which his or her ancestor resided.
Usually, a microfilm roll contains all the schedules for one county or several small counties. The arrangement of surnames on a page of the schedules is in the order in which the census taker gathered it as he went door to door. Searching for a particular name on the schedules involves scanning each page from top to bottom until the desired name is located. For large counties, this may entail scanning thousands of names in no particular order that makes sense to the researcher. This process is tedious but the method is simple.
Fortunately, most census records are indexed. Indexes enable researchers to locate an entry in the schedules without having to scan name by name. Usually, an index is limited to a certain geographic area, such as a county, group of counties, or a state. Heritage Quest has indexed the censuses from 1790-1820 and 1860-1930. Note: this database is available until March 31, 2013. FamilySearch (a free site) has indexed nearly all of the censuses and is currently working to finish the 1940 census.
The Soundex is a coded surname index based on the way a surname sounds rather than how it is spelled. For example, Scherman, Schurman, and Sherman are indexed together as S655. Surnames having the same code are arranged alphabetically by given name on the Soundex film.
Every Soundex code consists of a letter and three numbers. The letter is always the first letter of the surname, whether it is a vowel or a consonant. Disregard the remaining vowels and W, Y, and H, and assign numbers to the next three consonants of the surname according to the Soundex coding guide. If there are not three consonants following the initial letter, use zeros to fill out the three-digit code.
| the number ||represents the letter |
|1|| B,P, F,V |
|2||C, S, K, G, J, Q, X, Z|
|3|| D, T |
|5|| M, N |
Disregard letters A, E, I, O, U, W, Y & H
Once a name is located in the Soundex, the entry will show the county name, the enumeration district, the person's street address, age, place of birth, and the numbers of the page and line in that county's schedule where the entire census record can be found. A Soundex entry might also include information on other members of the household.
The Genealogical Society has the complete sets of 1880, 1900, and 1920 Soundex film for the states of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. See the chart in the back of the EWGS Holdings Book for the availability of other Soundex film.
The EWGS Holdings Book will indicate the variety of indexes available at the library. The subscription database Heritage Quest is also available online to city residents. Note: this database is available until March 31, 2013. This database is indexed and also has full text census tracts available online.
If a particular census schedule or Soundex is not available at the library or through Heritage Quest (Note: this database is available until March 31, 2013), it can be easily obtained through inter-library loan. The National Archives' Census Microfilm Rental Program rents to public libraries microfilm copies of any available census schedule or Soundex. The cost is $3.50 per microfilm roll plus shipping, payable in advance, to the Census Microfilm Rental Program. Simply fill out a blue inter-library loan request form with the name of the state, county, census schedule number, and roll number desired.
Catalogs listing the schedule and roll numbers for each census and census region (or coded surname if Soundex is being ordered) are kept behind the Third Floor Reference and Information Desk.
For those needing more extensive resources, the National Archives' Seattle Branch has complete sets of all available census schedules and Soundex film and is open to the public.
In addition to the decennial censuses of the federal government, many states also produced their own censuses in the intervening years. While many were strictly statistical, some were more detailed; such as Washington's Assessment and Census Rolls, 1857-1871and the Territorial Auditor's Censuses 1871-1892. Because the 1890 federal census is lost, any censuses taken between 1880 and 1900 become particularly important for locating ancestors.
Several of these state censuses have been indexed and published in print or on the Internet. Some of Washington's Territorial Auditor's Censuses have been indexed and are available on the Washington State Digital Archives. FamilySearch also has indexes for other states. See the EWGS Holdings book for state census indexes held by the library
The federal government has also taken special censuses in some states between the dicennial censuses. Of special interest to Washington researchers is the 1890 Special Census of Indians Not Taxed. Volumes 1 and 2 contain information on the Indians at Fort Simcoe and Tulalip, Washington Territory. This census is available on microfilm from the Seattle branch of the National Archives.
The Researchers' Guide to American Genealogy, by Val D. Greenwood, 3d ed.,Genealogical Publishing Co., 2000. GEN 929.1072 GREENWO
Map Guide to the U.S. Federal Censuses, 1790-1920, by William Thorndale and William Dollarhide. Publisher : Baltimore Genealogical Pub. Co., 1997, c1987. R GEN 312.09 THORNDA
State Censuses: an Annotated Bibliography of Censuses of Population Taken After the Year 1790 by States and Territories in the United States, by Henry J.Dubester, New York, B. Franklin,  repr. 1969. GEN 016.312 Un3