Historical Census Instructions For Enumerators; These May Help You Better Understand Your Own Ancestral Responses To Various Census Questions

Hi Everyone!

I recently had a question posed to me about some notes that were observed on some older census ledger sheets.  Sometimes these notes were not placed on the ledger sheets by the original census taker.  They may have been placed on the ledger sheets by other governmental agencies well after the original creations.  Such “add-ons” using the census ledgers may have been related to “proof” of age for Social Security applications or even for verification of passenger arrival  information.  You always have to take what is on the census ledgers with a grain of salt because these were not legal documents.  In our own research I am sure you have found many instances when a woman’s age seems to decrease over time in the reported census information over time!

The question did make me do some thinking on the instructions that a census taker had to follow when filling in the blanks in the census ledger sheets.  I did come across a nice website from the United States Census Bureau in which they make available PDF copies of these various instructions for a census taker.

Census Instructions for Various United States Census Enumerations

Unfortunately, many of these instructions are not available at this site in PDF format.  Here are the ones worth having with your research should you encounter unusual markings on your ancestors’  census ledgers.  These handy PDF census taker guides can shed light on something you see unusual on a census return.  Even if not unusual, sometimes it helps to understand how a census taker may have interpreted something said by ancestor of yours.

Here are the census instructions you can find in PDF format within the link above:

  • 1790
  • 1850
  • 1860
  • 1870
  • 1890
  • 1900
  • 1910
  • 1920
  • 1930
  • 1940
  • 1950
  • 1980
  • 1990
  • 2000
  • 2010

Following in “italics” are some rather stern directions noted in the 1870 census enumerator directions:


Assistant Marshals will begin the enumeration of their subdivisions, June I, and continue it without interruption till the work is complete. Intermission of work will be sufficient cause for removal.

Sheets must never be folded, either in the course of enumeration, or in transmission to Marshals, or to the Census Office.

When the Census Office is put to trouble and expense, by having to obtain through subsequent correspondence the answers to these questions, the cost of clerk hire and correspondence to the Department will be estimated, and deduction will be made for work not done.

The tenth section of the act of May 23, 1850, requires that the Assistant Marshal shall make the enumeration by actual inquiry at every dwelling-house, or by personal inquiry of the head of every family, and not otherwise. The duty cannot be performed by deputy or proxy. General publication will be made of the fact, so that citizens may know their rights, and resent unauthorized intrusion or inquiry. ,When persons properly subject to enumeration refuse to give information in the particulars required, they will be admonished of their liability under the provisions of the fifteenth section of the act of May 23, 1850. Assistant Marshals will, however, make as little show as possible of authority. They will approach every individual in a conciliatory manner; respect the prejudices of all; adapt their inquiries to the comprehension of foreigners and persons of limited education; and strive in every way to relieve the performance of their duties from the appearance of obtrusiveness. Anything like an overbearing disposition should be an absolute disqualification for the position.


I think it is even interesting to browse through some of the more recent instructions.  Our most recent censuses have been done through the mail with a follow-up done by an actual census enumerator if no response was provided or if the census bureau needed to just check things out.  The days of face-to-face enumerator/person are long gone.  As researchers, I think we always enjoyed looking at such long ledger census returns with unique questions over each of the censuses.

Researchers of the future may not have much “meat on the bones” when they will be researching an ancestor on a 2000 census return in the year 2072 (long after I am gone!).  The questions were few, simple and basic from what I remember.  I wonder if future researchers will be able to see digital images of original responses provided by us??  I don’t think they would see any handwriting on these returns since we just bubble filled in our responses to the questions.

Perhaps you have census ledgers for ancestors that you need a better understanding of a response they made.  Check out how the enumerator was supposed to handle the census questions and see if they might have made some kind of special notes for an ancestral response that may not have matched with how an enumerator was to handle it.

Consider including the above PDF files with your own research when it comes to the census.  You will at least have some paper trial to help you understand the replies of your ancestors on these various census ledger forms.

Tony Kierna
Genealogy Coordinator
Schaumburg Township District Library

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