Keep an eye out for special censuses
Most genealogists are familiar with the population schedules of the Federal censuses. We use these because after 1840 they tell us the names of people in the household, relationships, occupation, ages, places of birth, and other information. Most genealogists stop there. However, there were some federal non-population and special censuses taken and these are worth a look when you’re searching for information about your family.
I recently gave a presentation to my local genealogical society on the depth of information you can find in these non-population censuses. Over the next few weeks I’ll try to introduce you to a few of these.
The first one is the agricultural census taken from the first census of 1790. Agriculture was, and still is, important since food is critical to survival. And we were for many years an agrarian nation. If your ancestor owned a farm the agricultural census can help you learn more about his/her life. The questions vary in each census but basically you’ll learn how many acres were under cultivation or in pasture or woods, plus the number and type of crops grown such as bushels of corn, their value, the number and type of livestock (right down to geese) and their market value, animals slaughtered or sold, wages paid to helpers, type of machinery owned, and the value of the crops, animals, and the farm. True, these aren’t going to help find a family line but these facts fill in the life of your ancestor. Was he or she quite well to do or was it a hardscrabble life?
By the way, these censuses cover everything from dairy farms to orchards to southern cotton and sugar plantations. They tell you more about how your ancestor lived than the population schedule.
Also, if your ancestor made things or owned a factory even a blacksmith shop with one helper he (or she) will show up in the manufacturer’s census. This census covers all aspects of manufacturing from large cotton or woolen mills to grist mills, bakeries, breweries, mines, and anything that is “made”. Many of the censuses have separate sheets for different trades and I found examples from area towns of small, four or eight-person mills and blacksmith shops. If your ancestor had a trade where something was made you’ll want to check out this census to learn what he made, how many were employed, etc. Again, these censuses give you a more rounded picture of your ancestor’s life.
If you use ancestry.com, available at most libraries for free, go to search, click on the federal censuses and enter your ancestor’s name. If he or she is in one of the special censuses the link should pop up or you can browse.
There were other special censuses and schedules and I’ll touch on some of those in the following columns. These can be valuable tools in understanding our ancestors and how they lived their lives, something all good genealogists want to know. Happy researching.
Nancy Battick is a Dover-Foxcroft native who has researched genealogy for over 30 years. She is past president of the Maine Genealogical Society, author of several genealogical articles and co-transcribed the Vital Records of Dover-Foxcroft. Nancy holds a MA in History from UM and lives in Dover-Foxcroft with her husband, Jack, another avid genealogist. You can contact Nancy at firstname.lastname@example.org.