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Fill in the Census Records Research Gaps

new york state census

Utilizing census records are a fundamental resource for any genealogists. There are two situations discussed here where the federal census records leave information gaps. Namely, when you’re searching for a relative before the federal census of 1790, and when you can’t find someone you know should show up on a federal census.

A relative who predates the 1790 census

If you’re searching for your relative that you know lived in the US by or before 1790, Evarts B. Greene and Virginia D. Harrington’s American Population Before the Federal Census of 1790 is a crucial resource. Many books have lost their informational value as their contents have been mined and placed online. However, this book, which refers to about 4,000 separate population lists or estimates, is still the most accurate and exhaustive reference for the period.

The recipients of a social science research grant, Columbia University scholars Greene and Harrington set about to compile a list of every 17th- and 18th-century list (or statistical reference thereto) concerning the American population before the first U.S. census of 1790. Consulting both primary and secondary sources, the end result of their labors was a comprehensive survey, arranged by colony, state, or territory–and chronologically thereunder–of population lists for all units of American government in existence as of 1790.

The lists in American Population Before the Federal Census of 1790 themselves range from poll lists, tax lists, taxables, militia lists, and censuses; the book’s geographical coverage extends to Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia, the Illinois Territory, and the Northern and Southern Departments of the Western Indians.

The authors provide the sources for all entries, which are keyed to the extensive bibliography at the beginning of the book. While researchers will find no lists of persons in this volume, they will discover what exists and where to find it in this crucial record category of early American records.

If however you know that your relative should appear on a federal census but they’re missing, what then? This is the time to look to the state governments have also carried out censuses randomly throughout their history to satisfy a variety of purposes. Michigan, for example, took a special Civil War veterans census in 1888. There are also surviving territorial censuses that were taken to demonstrate readiness for statehood.

The underutilized state census

These state censuses are invaluable to genealogists because they fill in gaps left by missing federal censuses. For example, 12 states conducted censuses between 1885 and 1895, any one of which can substitute for that state’s missing 1890 federal census. It’s also not just finding a missing person that makes the state census data so valuable – state censuses tend to be opened to the public faster than federal ones; some state censuses taken as recently as 1945 are already available. Many state censuses contain information not found in federal censuses because the census takers asked different questions. For all of these reasons, state censuses can give you a more complete picture of your ancestors and solve genealogical problems. To find out what state censuses exist, what kinds of information they contain, and where they can be found, we recommend reading State Census Records, by Ann Lainhart, the definitive guide to this major, though vastly under-used, genealogical resource.

Image credit: A census of the electors and inhabitants in the State of New York. taken in the year 1790, in pursuance of a law of the said state …. [New York] Printed by Childs and Swaine, printers to the state [1790]. Via the Library of Congress.