Federal Census

The federal census is an incredible resource providing the names, ages, birth places, and occupations of entire communities. The W. L. Eury Appalachian Collection’s holdings include the microfilm version of each available census for each Appalachian county, as defined by the Appalachian Regional Commission, and each North Carolina county. Indexes and transcriptions for many counties are also available.

By Constitutional mandate, a federal census has been taken every ten years since 1790. Although a fire destroyed the majority of the 1890 census, the vast majority of federal censuses exist and available to the public. Only statistical census information is available for the first 72 years after each census is taken to protect individuals’ privacy. Therefore, the most recent federal census available is the 1930 census. Fairly accurate print indices are available for most years and counties which makes searching easier. These indices will give you the page number in the county’s census and sometimes the household number. Indices for some non-Appalachian counties are also available.

1790-1840 Federal Census

These early censuses are problematic for a number of reasons. Prior to 1850, only the name of the Head of the Household was taken along with numbers of people for various age groups, races, and free status. For example, Nancy Hayes’ family of four would be listed as 0-5 years White: 1 Male, 0-5 yrs White: 2 Females, 20-25 yrs White: 1 Female, 10-15 years Slave: 1 Female. As a result, researchers can discern the name of the head of household but not inhabitants’ names, relationship to the Head of the Household, or ages. The census office did not provide a printed questionnaire or “schedule,” therefore the earliest census records are handmade and sometimes crude. Further, some counties alphabetized the names of their inhabitants, thereby losing contextual information about neighborhoods. Unfortunately, these censuses are often the only way to locate non-land owning families. Other challenges to research include the burning of the 1790 census schedules for Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, New Jersey, Tennessee, and Virginia and the exclusion of untaxed American Indians from census schedules until 1940 (i.e., American Indians who lived on reservations or were registered with the Bureau of Indian Affairs would be excluded). The 1840 census dramatically increased the amount of information gathered to include number of household members who were deaf, dumb or blind, in school, engaged in agriculture, commerce, manufacturing, learned professions, and trades, or insane, and the ages of Revolutionary War pensioners.

1850 and 1860 Federal Censuses

Beginning in 1850, the Census Office printed uniform instructions for census takers resulting in increased compliance and accuracy. For 1850 and 1860, the population census was divided into free and slave. The Free Federal Census records each free household member by name along with the occupation of the free occupants over the age of thirteen. It also increased data sought to include the order and number of dwelling visited, the names of each free household member, their ages, sex, color, birthplaces, literacy, occupations, and the real estate value of the dwelling. The 1860 census added the value of personal property. The Slave Federal Census does not give the slaves’ names. Instead, the names of the owners, the number of the owners’ slaves, the number of slave houses and the slaves’ age, sex, and race are listed. Slave censuses are not usually indexed.

1870-1930 Federal Census

After the end of the Civil War, the population census was again altered in order to reflect the county’s new universal freedom. Nationality and race, as indicated by white (W), black (B), Chinese (C), Indian (I), and mulatto (M), were more specific in the 1870 censuses. The 1880 census added parents’ birthplace and the relationships of household members to the head of household. Census takers also began recording street addresses in cities during the 1880 census. Unfortunately, the majority of the census schedules for 1890 were destroyed during a 1921 fire within the Commerce Department. The W. L. Eury Appalachian Collection, however, owns a microfilm copy of the surviving Special 1890 schedule enumerating Union veterans and their widows. The 1900 census includes the year of immigration and citizenship status, type of home (farm, owned, rental, mortgaged).

The 1940 census will be made available to the public in April 2012.

Industry and Agriculture Censuses

Additional censuses for industry and agriculture exist for 1840-1910 although this data was often integrated into the population schedules of the earliest census. These tell you what industries existed in the county. The agriculture census lists the acreage, head of livestock, and pounds of produce grown by each farmer, including absentee landlords, in the county. These are not indexed. Underused, these censuses expand genealogists’ information about ancestors’ household, daily experiences, and income.

Mortality Censuses

In addition to the population and business-oriented censuses, the federal government inquired about individuals who died during the year prior to the census enumeration for the years 1850, 1860, 1870, 1880, and 1885. Although deaths were underreported, it acts as a death register for many communities. In addition to demographic information (name, sex, age, color, marital status, etc.) it lists the cause of death and length of illness. The W. L. Eury Appalachian Collection maintains the Mortality Censuses for Appalachian Regional counties.

State Censuses

States often took censuses during the off years of the federal censuses. Sometimes these censuses collected specific data such as tallies of school-age children in order to predict education needs or to monitor African American migration to northern cities. The W. L. Eury Appalachian Collection owns some of these state censuses for Appalachian states. The state censuses available for states containing Appalachian counties include: Alabama (1818, 1820, 1821, 1823, 1850, 1855, 1866, 1907), Georgia (1798, 1800, 1810, 1827, 1834, 1838, 1845, 1852, 1853, 1859, 1865, 1879), Maryland (1776, 1778), Mississippi (1801, 1805, 1808, 1810, 1816, 1818, 1820, 1822, 1823, 1824, 1825, 1830, 1833, 1837, 1840, 1841, 1845, 1850, 1853, 1860, 1866), New York (1790, 1825, 1835, 1845, 1855, 1865, 1875, 1892, 1905, 1915, 1925), North Carolina (1786), South Carolina (1825, 1839, 1869, 1875), Tennessee (1891).

Censuses of American Indians

American Indians who were registered with the Bureau of Indian Affairs were enumerated separately by the federal government and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). As a result, American Indians enumerated as such in the 1860 and 1870 federal censuses are those who were taxed and lived away from reservations. Those living on reservations or who were registered were tallied in special BIA censuses. In 1880, a special enumeration was taken for American Indians in Dakota and Washington territories and California. 1885 to 1940 Indian census rolls have been microfilmed by the National Archives while the Indian Census Cards Index is maintained by the National Archives’ Southwest Region office. These censuses include names (American Indian with English translation) and names of tribal affiliation in addition to standard demographic information. The BIA took separate Indian school censuses from 1910 to 1939. In addition to demographic information, these school censuses include the degree of American Indian blood, the distance between school and home, and the names of parents or guardian. Supplementary rolls, deduction rolls, and allotment rolls give additional information about American Indian populations. The W. L. Eury Appalachian Collection holds several censuses for the Cherokee Nation, both Eastern and Western bands, from the late 19th century to the mid-20th century.


For the 1880, 1910, 1920, and 1930 federal censuses, researchers use the Soundex, which is an indexing system based on the sound of the surname rather than the spelling of the surname. The premise is that surnames that were misspelled or have multiple spellings will be more easily located using this code. With similar sounds grouped together under a number (ex., b, p, v, f = 1), researchers can locate the desired surname more easily.

Using the Soundex chart, convert the surname into the 4 digit code. The first digit is the first letter of the surname. The remaining three digits are numbers based to the surname’s 2nd, 3rd, and 4th consonants. This way Fred Hay’s ancestor who spelled his name Hey would have the same code that he has. Also, if there aren’t 3 consonants, the remaining digit will be filled with an ‘0’. For example, the Soundex code for Hay is H-000. Individuals with a surname fitting a particular code will be grouped together alphabetically by first name. The corresponding card will provide the census’s county and page number that the individual is listed in.

The W. L. Eury Appalachian Collection maintains the Soundex microfilm for North Carolina federal censuses. A chart with the Soundex rules and code is taped near the Special Collections’ microfilm reader/printer.

Online Census Databases

The University Libraries subscribe to online resources which researches access census records, birth and death certificates, draft cards, social security registration forms, and other primary sources. These are available at Ancestry Library and HeritageQuest. To gain access to these databases, you must be a registered faculty, staff, or student or use a computer on the campus of Appalachian State University.

Reading Handwriting

Census readers are often frustrated by the census takers’ handwriting. Reading old handwriting can be challenging because 19th Century Americans were taught different approaches than current students. For those researching European handwriting styles, Great Britain’s National Archives has “Palaeography: Reading Old Handwriting, 1500 - 1800: A Practical Online Tutorial” and Brigham Young University maintains Script Tutorials for Dutch, English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish.

For additional reading

United States. National Archives and Records Administration. The 1790-1890 Federal Population Censuses: Catalog of National Archives Microfilm. Washington, DC: National Archives Trust Fund Board, 1993.

Thorndale, William. Map Guide to the U.S. Federal Censuses, 1790-1920. Baltimore: Genealogical Pub. Co., 1987.