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The most popular use of the census is to trace family history. No other source matches the census record’s ability to place people in a certain place at a certain time or to provide such a detailed picture of lives and lifestyles at given intervals. The promise of that picture, and of seeing it clearly, keeps researchers going against all odds.
Few, if any, records reveal as many details about individuals and families as do the U.S. federal censuses. The population schedules are successive “snapshots” of Americans that depict where and how they were living at particular periods in the past. Census records since 1850 suggest dates and places of birth, relationships, family origins, changes in residence, schooling, occupations, economic and citizenship status, and more.
While some inaccuracies are to be expected in census records, they still provide some of the most fascinating and useful pieces of personal history to be found in any source. If nothing else, census records are important sources for placing individuals in specific places at specific times. Additionally, information found in the census will often point to other sources critical to completing research, such as court, land, military, immigration, naturalization, and vital records.
The importance of census records does not diminish over time in any given research project. It is always wise to return to these records as discoveries are made in other sources because, as new evidence about individuals is found, some data that seemed unrelated or unimportant in a first look at the census may take on new importance.
When family, vital, or religious records are missing, census records may be the only means of documenting the events of a person’s life. Vital registration did not begin until around 1920 in many areas of the United States, and fires, floods, and other disasters have destroyed some official government records. When other documentation is missing, census records are frequently used by individuals who must prove their age or citizenship status (or that of their parents) for Social Security benefits, insurance, passports, and other important reasons.