Seventy-Two Years Later People Can Finally Come to their Census
A printable copy of this Guide is available here (requires Adobe Acrobat Reader).
So why did we have to wait 72 years for the 1940 census to become available? It’s because of the Right to Privacy Act that requires a 72-year waiting period (the average human life span) before the census can be released to the public. This seems kind of silly in an era where about the only place you have any privacy is in the bathroom, and that’s only because the window is up too high and it has that funny glass that no one can see through. It’s also ironic that about a third of the people who came into the Archives Room to see the 1930 Wisconsin federal census when it was released and the microfilm arrived did so to find themselves on the census! “Yup, there I am!” a searcher would tell me pointing to his family on the microfilm image of the 1930 census. “And there’s our neighbor, Mr. Crudmucker. Boy, he was grumpy!” So much for the right to privacy.
The 1940 United States census will be released for public use by the National Archives of the United States. The census will be released as free digital images by National archives partner archives.com at http://1940census.archives.gov/ and, soon after the release, images will also be available on http://www.ancestry.com/ and http://www.familysearch.org/. Currently the National Archives has guides and information about the 1940 census on their site http://www.archives.gov/research/census/1940/general-info.html, including a blank copy of the 1940 census form and instructions for the enumerators who conducted the 1940 census. There is one small downside: when the 1940 census is released there will be no name index.
Enumeration Districts are administrative divisions for the purpose of census taking, generally assigned to a single census taker (the enumerator). The only index on the release day of the census will be an index by ED (Enumeration District), which is an index by location, not by name. How do you find the person you are looking for?
Steve Morse, on his helpful genealogy tool page, has created a 1940 census ED finder at http://stevemorse.org/census/unified.html. In order to locate people you can do one of two things:
1. If they are in the same location in 1930 and 1940 find them in the 1930 census. Use their 1930 Enumeration District to find the likely 1940 ED.
2. If they are not in the same location in 1930 then determine their location in 1940 and use the 1940 census ED finder to determine the EDs to search.
What is it about the 1940 census, and any of the other available early census records, that make it such a hot item for doing family research? For one thing, the census is readily available for anyone to use. A person doesn’t have to go through government bureaucracy or deal with someone like a church official who is reluctant to share their institution’s records. All they have to do is find a library or historical society that owns the census on microfilm (for pre 1940 censuses). The La Crosse Public Library Archives and Local History Room owns the Wisconsin federal census for 1836-1930 as well as the Wisconsin state census for 1855-1905. We also have some censuses from Houston and Winona counties in Minnesota. Our library subscribes to an online service, Ancestry Library Edition, which has a database of census images from every state that can be viewed on the Internet. This service has proved extremely popular with genealogists who want to view a census from another state. There are also several indexes to the census available through this service that we don't have in paper or microfilm. The state of Wisconsin, through Badgerlink, subscribes to HeritageQuest, which has images of censuses through 1930, as well as some indexing, and is available to anyone in the state of Wisconsin either at home or library. FamilySearch also has indexes for all censuses (through 1930 at this point) as well as some state censuses and digital images for some censuses as well. FamilySearch is also planning to coordinate volunteers to index the 1940 census and they welcome anyhone who wants to help with the effort. You can volunteer here http://the1940census.com to help yourself, and other genealogists.
So now we know where we can find the census. How does one going about finding a family on the census and what kind of information can be found using the census? To use the census, you need to start out with the county you want to search. Then you need to know the township, village, or in the case of larger cities, the ward in which the family you are searching lived at the time the census was taken. This is because the census does not go alphabetically by the name of the person. The families are listed in order that the census taker was told to canvass the area. Don’t be discouraged if you’re not sure where the family lived. There are types of indexes for most of the Wisconsin federal census except for the years of 1910 and 1930. By the way, don’t bother with the 1890 census. It was destroyed in a fire for virtually the whole country. The 1865 Wisconsin state census also proved to be very combustible, meeting the same fate.
The kind of information to be found on the census varies from each census year. The 1850 federal census was the first to list the names of all the family members living in each household. Before that, only the head of the household was named and the number of males and females was listed. (Incidentally, all the Wisconsin state censuses are done in this manner except for the 1905, which lists the names of all the members of the household. The 1905 was also the last census done by the state). The 1850 census also lists the age of each person, the state or country that person was born in, their occupation, whether they could speak English, the value of their real estate and if they attended school.
The 1860 census offered no real significant changes. The 1870 census would include the month a person was born or married if the event took place within a year of the day the census was taken. This census also asked if a person’s father or mother were foreign born. The 1880 census had two important additions, the first being the relationship of each person to the head of the household. In other words, it would tell if a person was the wife, daughter, father-in-law, etc. of the head of household. The second important addition was columns listing the country or state that the parent of each person listed was born in. Many times the German province was listed if the person was born in Germany but not the town.
One thing that did survive from the 1890 census was a special census listing surviving Civil War veterans or their widows in Wisconsin. This census lists the name of the regiment or vessel the person served on and when they enlisted and when they were discharged. The library does own this census.
The 1900 census represents a significant increase in the genealogical value of information included on the census. Probably the biggest is the inclusion of the year of immigration to the United States. Also included is the month and year each person was born, the total number of children born of the mother and the number of children still living. The total number of years the parents have been married and whether people over the age of 21 have been naturalized or not are also recorded on the 1900 census. The 1910 and 1920 censuses are similar to the 1900 census.
Here’s a breakdown of most of the information you would find looking at the 1940 census: The street and house number where the family lived (if they lived in the city), the name of everyone living at that household and the persons sex, color, age, and marital status. Also listed is if the person attended school or not, their highest grade completed, and what country or state they were born in, and where they lived on April 1, 1935 which is a real bonus. If the person was over age 14 their occupation was listed. Also noted is who answered the census enumerators questions and gave the information about the family. From some census entries it looks like dad must have been plowing on the back 40, mom had a babe in arms with another youngster clinging to her skirt, and the family 9 or 10 year old was providing the answers. The 1940 census was the first census to use sampling—not asking everyone every single question. Everyone on lines 14 and 29 of the 1940 census form answered additional questions: birthplaces of parents, mother tongue, veteran status, and whether they were enrolled in Social Security.
The Wisconsin federal census is available for anyone to use at the La Crosse Public Library Archives Room. Many of the census materials were purchased through the generosity of the La Crosse Area Genealogical Society and the Friends of the La Crosse Public Library. For the most up-to-date list of census materials held by the library, check out our holdings descriptions at /genealogy/index.asp by scrolling down to Census.
Written by William Petersen
Associate Archives Librarian
Updated September 2009
Updated March 2012
Click here for a printable copy of this Guide (requires Aodbe Acrobat Reader).
updated 3/15/2012 by mi