Photographs are such a wonderful tool for genealogy. They allow you to see features of our ancestors that we might never have known about otherwise. For a brief moment, we get a glimpse through the window of time to see how they lived, what they dreamed, and what their lives were like.
But what if you don’t have any photographs? We must then turn our eyes to another “snapshot” - the census records.
The United States was one of the first countries to require a count of its population, or census, be taken at regular 10-year intervals. This requirement is written right into our Constitution (see Article 1 Section 2 for more details). Therefore, we can have a picture of our ancestors’ lives every decade.
The first census was very sketchy. In the 1790 census, the only information collected was names of the head of families, the number of free white males, free white females, all other persons and slaves.
The 1900s censuses were much more detailed. They had categories for place of abode, name, relation, home data, personal description, education and place of birth.
The information gleaned from each record paints a picture of how the family lived at a particular moment in a particular place. We can see how the family expanded or diminished over the years, how they made their living, their migration paths as new land opened to the public, and which brave souls pledged their lives to defend and protect their homeland. The list goes on and on.
There is a learning curve to using such a valuable tool. Each census year came with its own rules and challenges for capturing the nation’s population. Imagine trying to count a room full of 5-year-olds hyped up on sugar, and you can begin to appreciate what the enumerators faced in trying to obtain an accurate count of the population.
The Wiki pages on familysearch.org give an excellent overview of each year’s census record and how you can combine the information to sketch a picture of the lives of our ancestors. As our society has evolved, the census records have required more and more information from the citizens, which, in turn, allows us to draw an ever increasingly detailed portrait of our family’s past.
In an age of instant photos and images, taking the time to research the census records and allow your family’s “snapshot” to develop can be a rewarding experience. And for some of us it may be the only portrait we’ll ever have.
If you have a question for the Augusta Genealogical Society, e-mail it, with “Ancestor Search” in the subject line, to AugustaGenSociety@comcast.org.