Thursday, February 6, 2014

Using the U.S. Census

Today's post is the second of this year to focus on using specific online resources in our research. One of the sources that can be extremely helpful and is one of the easiest to access online is the U.S. Census.

The census was required in the Constitution. Because the number of representatives that a state has in the House is based on population, provision was made for an accurate population count every ten years. The first census was done in 1790, and has been done every decade since that time.

For the first several census years, the only names recorded were the heads of household, and basic demographics on everyone else was recorded. This was done for census years 1790-1840. For example, you could find a great-grandfather's name in one of these census years, but then it would simply list something like 1 female over the age of 30, 2 males under the age of 10, and 1 female under the age of 5.

In 1850, the names of everyone in a household began to be recorded. Also, in 1850 and 1860, separate slave schedules were included as part of the census. Between 1850 and 1880, mortality schedules were also done, which gave information on life spans and causes of death.

Each census year was slightly different in the type of information that was gathered. Some census years list things like parents' places of birth for each individual. Some list information on manufacturing, fisheries, taxation, churches, immigration, and even crime. There are several places to find what information was included in each census year, but the quickest way I've found is to just get on Wikipedia and look for the census year. It will list everything that was asked in the census.

Census records are released 72 years after a census was taken in order to protect privacy. So, as of right now, we can access the 1790 through 1940 census records. The 1950 census will be released in 2022.

The 1890 census is very sparse and incomplete, as the records were destroyed by a fire in 1921. The 1800 and 1810 census records are also incomplete. For the year 1800, the records of Georgia, Kentucky, New Jersey, Tennessee, and Virginia were lost. For the year 1810, the records of the District of Columbia, Georgia, Mississippi, New Jersey, Ohio, and most of Tennessee were either lost or destroyed. So, good luck if you have ancestors from the early 19th century in Georgia, New Jersey, or Tennessee.

The U.S. Census records that have been publicly released are available in several different places online. FamilySearch and both have them available with full indexes, and you can also access them from government and other third-party websites.

There are some things to be cautious about when using the U.S. Census to find genealogical information. The data found in a census should always be double-checked with other records. There are several reasons for this. One, not all families spelled their names uniformly throughout each census. Second, depending on who in the household answered the questions, the data might not be accurate or complete. Third, depending upon the census taker's education and level of accuracy in recording, the census taker might have incorrectly written information down. Finally, the census is only a snapshot of an individual or family every 10 years. So many things can happen in those 10 years that if you rely on census records for the bulk of your sources on a family, you will have a very incomplete picture. Births and deaths, moves, marriages, changes in occupation, etc., can and did change in between census years.

As a general rule of thumb, I use the census early on in my research of U.S. ancestors just to have a jumping off point, and then I look to verify all vital information (birth dates, names, deaths, family relationships) with other record sources. In this way, using the U.S. Census can be extremely helpful for genealogical research.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Social Security Death Index

As I hope to do more regular posting on here again this year, I'm going to start using many of the posts to discuss different resources for genealogy online and give some background and tips on using these sources.

One of the glaring mistakes I've noticed many genealogists make is finding and/or relying on sources that they don't understand. As I've mentioned in past posts, it is important that you understand at least a little bit about the source you are using. For example, it would be helpful to know that census records in the U.S. have been done every 10 years, that the 1890 records were mostly destroyed in a fire, and that they release census records after 72 years. (The 1950 census will be released to the public in 2022.) For the census, it would also be helpful to know that they were subject to many errors, either by the census taker or because of which individual in the house was relaying the information to the census taker. Knowing these things can help you determine how best to use the census in your research, and to remind you that you'll want to verify information you find in a census with vital records whenever possible.

The Social Security Death Index is one of the most common sources where I see mistakes made, so we'll start there. The Social Security Death Index is a federal database kept by the Social Security Administration. Social security numbers began to be issued in 1935, after the passing of the Social Security Act. Many amendments have been made to the act since that time. Social security numbers were not required for everyone, and in fact, still aren't. If you don't ever work a job where payroll taxes would be withheld from wages, you can actually get through life without a social security number. However, it would make it very difficult to maintain a living, get a driver's license, open a bank account, apply for a loan, or buy a home, so I don't recommend it.

There were many people who were already past the retirement age when the law was passed in the 1930s who never did sign up for a number. I've found many ancestors or relatives who died after the act was passed who never applied for a number or received benefits. So this index is one you'll only want to use for more recent relatives. In addition, it was common up until about 1986 (a tax law that was passed that year) that people didn't apply for a number until they were at least 14 and ready to start earning income. Since that time, the IRS requires social security numbers to be listed when claiming someone as a dependent on a tax return, so it's very common now to apply for a number for a child with the birth certificate filing.

When it comes to genealogical purposes, the first thing to know is that the Social Security Death Index, or SSDI, only lists information for individuals whose death was reported to the Social Security Administration. (This may seem obvious at first glance, but trust me, I've seen people trying to search the SSDI for someone that is still alive.) Since 1973, it is estimated that the SSDI contains anywhere from 93 to 96% of the deaths of individuals aged 65 or older. So it is a very useful tool. However, just because you don't find someone in the database doesn't mean they didn't have a social security number. Again, there are some that are never reported.

The database itself is free to search. It is available on many genealogy websites, including FamilySearch and

The database normally lists the person's given name and surname, date of birth (sometimes), month and year of death, the social security number, the state or territory where the number was issued, and the zip code of the last known residence of the individual. If I don't have a death date or place for someone, I use the SSDI first to see if I can narrow down a death date, which will then allow me to find a death certificate.

One extremely important thing to note is that the surname of the person will be whatever they listed on their original application (or changed to, later). In other words, for the most part, a woman will be listed with her last married name. Unless a woman never married, it is rare for a woman to be listed by her maiden name. This is important, as it can be easy when using the SSDI to confuse individuals with the same given and surnames. Whatever the name was at death is most likely how it will be listed in the SSDI.

In addition to this, if you find a record for a relative in the SSDI, you can actually request a copy of the original SS-5 application for social security number. This document might list further details, including birthplace, father's name, and possibly even mother's maiden name.

If you have a request for me to review a particular database or record type, drop me a message or leave a comment, and I'll add it to my queue.