Out on a Limb: Milestones of the U.S. Census

				                                Tom Mooney
                                Out on a Limb

Tom Mooney

Out on a Limb

If there is one set of documents that American genealogists treasure, it is the U.S. Census.

Though methods and categories have changed since the first one in 1790, the census has proved to be an unparalleled repository of information on our ancestors.

The census now in progress, that of 2020, is proving to be one of the most challenging ever undertaken. While most previous census data collections were completed within months, the current one has been delayed into autumn by the COVID-19 pandemic. Data collection by census representatives was even suspended during the summer and only recently resumed. The target date for completion is now the end of September.

It is also the first census in which most responses were made via computer, telephone or mail. While general information will be available soon, data about individuals will be embargoed until 2092.

Here are some milestones in the history of the census.

1790: Federal marshals were appointed and tasked with hiring employees to travel to every corner of the new United States (largely the eastern seaboard) to make a count of all residents.

1850: For the first time, enumerators listed every member of a household in detail rather than focusing on the head of household, with the rest listed in general terms such as gender and age.

1870: This is the first census in which African-American people were treated as free men and women rather than as slaves, with their names sometimes not even having been listed.

1890: Nearly all of the 1890 census records were lost when they became waterlogged in a 1921 fire at Washington, DC and were later pronounced unsalvageable and destroyed. A parallel special census of Civil War veterans and their spouses/widows was partially lost as well. Earlier census records from some states have also vanished.

1920: The census this year showed that America was becoming a nation of urban people, a reversal of the traditional rural and small-town primacy of the past.

1940: Reflecting America on the eve of World War II, this is the latest census with personal information that’s open to the public under the “72-year-rule.”

1950: Records were processed with an early computer known as Univac, a massive piece of machinery with vacuum tubes. This census showed a population shift south and west in the era of postwar change and prosperity. Information about individuals in this census will become open to the public in April, 2022.

News Notes: The Nanticoke Historical Society continues to urge people in that area to send in brief accounts of the impact of the pandemic on their daily lives. The goal is to build up a data base for future genealogists and historians. You may send email to [email protected] or postal mail to the society at 495 East Main St., Nanticoke, PA 18634.

While the Northeast Pennsylvania Genealogical Society remains closed, the staff continues to fill research requests. For information on rates and membership (members get a discount) go to the society’s Facebook page or its website www.nepgs.com.

Hats off to our libraries for adapting their operations to serve the public while coping with the ongoing pandemic. The Hoyt Memorial Library, Kingston, allows patrons to phone in requests and pick up books outside. The Osterhout Free Library, Wilkes-Barre, has held a sale featuring recent hard-cover books for just $5 apiece. Check the website of your own favorite library to see what is available for you. There’s no need to stop reading with such creative people heading our libraries.

Tom Mooney is

Tom Mooney is a Times Leader genealogy columnist. Reach him at [email protected]