Microform > Census > Historical Context
The largest component of our microform collection is the United States Census, spanning the years 1790-1930 (excluding the 1890 population schedules which burned in a fire in Washington D.C. in the early part of the 20th century). Thousands of rolls of microfilm contain information about your ancestors captured from a moment in time. The actual ledger books used by census takers were filmed so you see exactly what the census taker wrote. On film they are arranged by state, then by county, then within a county by city, ward, enumeration district, towns, or townships (depending on the census year), and the locale. Even though the 1890 population schedules burned, the special 1890 census of Union veterans and their widows for states Kentucky through Wisconsin have survived and we have those as well. In addition to the federal census taken every ten years, some states took censuses of their own at various times, usually at the midway point through the federal census ten year gap. Florida is one of these states and we have the 1885, 1935 and 1945 censuses for Florida, as well as the print index for the 1885 census in our collection.
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The census was taken by individuals who were given areas of each town, township, or county in a state to canvas. The goal was for them to visit each household in their territory to record the information about the people who resided in the home on the particular day they were there. Consequently, the census is not in alphabetical order, but persons are counted (enumerated) just as the census taker walked his route. The record will not include a child born after the census taker was there or may not include a person staying temporarily with other relatives. The benefit to this set up is that you will often see the names of neighbors that may be relatives as well as families that may have intermarried, living nearby. The downside is that in the past, you needed to know exactly where your ancestor lived in a particular census year in order to shorten your search through the many rolls of microfilm for a large city like New York in 1910 which is comprised of 93 rolls.
Most people today would rather begin the census search with one of our online databases as these have made the tedious task of searching rolls of microfilm almost unnecessary. However, searching the rolls of microfilm may be your last resort if your ancestor's name does not appear in an index, on the Soundex, or in an online database and you know he/she was in a certain community during a certain time period. Indexers can and do make mistakes.
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The information on the census varies from year to year. From 1790-1840 only free heads of households were listed by name as the census was also a way to determine who could be taxed to support the new government. So there will be no wives or children listed by name, nor slaves owned by the family. Other people in the household are listed by age groups only.
Keep in mind that the census taker may have asked the questions of anyone in the household, or even a neighbor, if he could not find anyone at home. Sometimes the age of a person in 1870 is reported as 36, while in 1880 he is listed as being 42. Sometimes the number of years married don't match either, while sometimes the surname is misspelled or a nickname is used for the first name. Take into account that many people could not read or write and they may not have been able to recall exactly the dates and facts we are more accustomed to committing to memory. Also the use of certain nicknames of old, as well as the occupations people were engaged in, as well as the old style of writing can pose real deciphering problems when looking at early census records. We have reference material in the collection that can help you when interpreting census records, just ask for assistance.
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Take a look at two examples of census sheets from these early years available through HeritageQuest Online to see what limited information is available:
- View a census sheet from 1790 (PDF)
- View a census sheet from 1900 (PDF)
Microform > Census > By the Decades
Now let's take a closer look at what you can learn by consulting the censuses that would enumerate (count) your ancestor. Some questions stay the same through subsequent years, but new ones are added to provide more detailed information about your ancestor as we progress toward modern times.
1820 is the first census to ask the head of the household if he/she was a naturalized citizen, helpful to know if you need to look for naturalization records.
1850 is the first census to list the name, age, and birthplace of every free person in a household.
1870 is the first census to ask if the mother or father of the person being enumerated is foreign born. It is also the first census to list Native Americans and other minorities by name.
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1880 is the first census to ask the relationship of each person in the household to the head of the household. For example are they a sister, daughter, mother-in-law, or a boarder? Prior to this you have to guess at relationships based on sexes and ages. It also asks the birthplace of each person as well as the birthplace of his or her mother and father.
1890 is the population schedule that burned, but the special census of Union Veterans and their widows for states Kentucky - Wisconsin survived. These may also include some Confederate veterans and veterans of the Mexican War.
1900 is the first census to ask the month (as well as the only census to ask for month) and year of each person's birth, the number of years of their present marriage, the number of children born to a woman and how many are now living, the year of immigration to the U.S., the number of years in the U.S., whether or not the person was naturalized, and if they rented or owned a farm or a house.
1910 is the first census to ask if a person could speak English. If not, their native language was recorded. They also recorded whether individuals were a survivor of the Union or Confederate Army or Navy and whether their home or farm was free or mortgaged.
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1920 is the first census to ask the actual year of naturalization.
1930 is the first census to ask the age of the person at his or her first marriage, if the household owns a radio, if the person is a veteran and if so, of what war.
1940 is the first census to ask where the person lived in April 1, 1935.
Watch a video on the following page about how to view and copy microfilm from a microfilm machine.
Microform > City Directories
In addition to the census on microfilm, we have many reels of microfilm that contain city directories of the U.S. from 1882-1901 for those areas that published city directories. These offer a substitute for the lost 1890 census, as names of residents and occupations are given, as well as addresses. These are useful to consult for the 10 year period in between the censuses to see when an ancestor moved from the area if you can't find him or her in the next census.
Microform > Additional Records
Passenger Lists We have some limited Passenger List indexes for ports in the U.S. for various time periods. Print copies of the actual passenger lists can be obtained from the National Archives in Washington DC or viewed on Ancestry.
Freedman's Savings and Trust The Freedman's Savings and Trust was a financial institution chartered by Congress in early 1865 as a way to benefit former slaves. The records of the bank accounts as well as the information the depositors provided about their families, and heirs to the accounts, provide a unique glimpse of the former slave's family in the immediate period after the Civil War.
Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps The Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps for the southern states were created to assist fire insurance agents so they detail size, and shapes of dwellings, and other commercial buildings in many towns and cities in early 20th century America. A genealogist can see where an ancestor's house was located, what it looked like, the size and other details by consulting these maps.
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Military Records As for military records on microfilm, we have the complete War of the Rebellion records, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Florida Military records 1835-1858, and the Florida infantry in the War with Spain records.
Similar Formats In addition to microfilm, we have some records on microfiche. Our collection contains the Pre-1860 city directories for many cities of the U.S. that allow you to locate an ancestor, as well as the Florida Death, Marriage and Divorce Index 1877-1997, and the Georgia Death Index 1919-1993. These will give you the precise information you need to send for the death certificates of an ancestor whose vital record occurred in Florida or Georgia during these years.
Birth Records As you have probably noted, we have not made reference to any birth records. For persons still living, they are available only to the person whose birth the record pertains to, or to a legal parent or guardian who requests the record. Unlike marriage and death records, birth records are not open to the general public.