Using State Censuses for Genealogical Research

Have you used state census records in your genealogy research? If not, you are overlooking a potentially fabulous resource.

Passaic, New Jersey 1895 Census
Source: Ancestry

This is an entry from the 1895 New Jersey state census taken in Passaic. The “head” of this multi-family household is Mickael Scserbak, followed by Annie, Julia and Mickael.

Michael was my grandmother’s baby brother, born in January 1895. There is no place on this page to enter the exact date of the enumeration, but baby Michael, who I knew about because my Nana told me about him, died in October 1895. It sounded like crib death as Nana said he didn’t wake up from a nap.

Had I not asked my grandmother if she had any siblings who died young, the only government record in which infant Michael is found is this census record.

In addition to finding Michael in the family, a quick look at others who lived in the same house include John Scserbak, who was Michael’s brother, John Knopp, who hailed from the same village as the Scerbaks, and Susan Murcsko, who was the younger sister of Anna Scserbak. This is a little gold mine of information about immigrants from Udol, Slovakia, as is the rest of the neighborhood. In some cases, these families returned to Europe or made multiple moves back and forth across the Atlantic. Michael and Anna Scerbak, my great grandparents, returned to Slovakia about 1898 and are not found in any other U.S. census.

Which states took censuses?

First, the states that took censuses of their own often took them at the five-year mark in between the federal census years. That’s not a firm rule, but, in general, it works.

For detailed information on all the U.S. state census records, I’d recommend Ann S. Lainhart’s book to add to your reference library:

It’s available on everyone’s favorite online shopping site for about $24.

The number of censuses taken by each state varies quite a bit – Connecticut, Idaho, Kentucky, Montana, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Vermont and West Virginia took NO state censuses. Several others took only one or very few, some of which are incomplete. Tennessee took a state census in 1891, which could be very useful, since the 1890 U.S. census is mostly gone. However, only males 21 and older were enumerated.

Where can state census records be found?

Many state censuses have been digitized and are available on either Ancestry and/or FamilySearch. Most of the states that took censuses did so in the 1800s, although a few exist from the 1700s and several took them into the 1900s. New York, Rhode Island, South Dakota and Florida continued the practice until 1935 and/or 1945.

To find state censuses on Ancestry, search the census records by century. Next, browse. This will bring up the card catalog:

Enter the state name in the keyword box:

Notice that the state census years are near the top of the list, but they aren’t in chronological order. Ancestry has the 1865, 1855, 1875 and 1895 New Jersey state censuses.

However, New Jersey also took censuses in 1885, 1905 and 1915.

When I searched specifically for the 1885 census, this appeared:

The lesson to be learned here is that if you don’t see the census year you want in the results list, add the year to the state name and search again!

To find the state censuses on FamilySearch, look for the state name in the catalog and scroll down to CENSUS:

The list that comes up in the hits contains both federal and state censuses. A number of the New Jersey censuses have an index.

Here are several examples of state census records from other states:

Cape Girardeau, Missouri, 1868 listed all members in the household:

Goshen, Massachusetts, 1855 also enumerated everyone in the home:

Keokuk, Iowa, 1844, followed the 1840 census practice of only listing the heads of household and they were recorded in alphabetical order:

There are some definite positives and definite negatives to state censuses. The plus side is that if a state census exists for the locality in which you are searching, you may find new information and/or be able to confirm information found in other records. Sometimes the census data will be unique, as with my grandmother’s baby brother and the fact that it’s the only U.S. census record in which her parents appear.

The negative side of these records include the fact that while the records are fairly plentiful, they are often incomplete. At times, only one town or one county census survived for a given year. I encountered that problem with the Missouri state censuses. Also, sometimes, even after 1850, the state decided to only include the name of the head of household, which limits the tidbits to be gleaned.

However, everyone should be doing a reasonably exhaustive search for each family in the family tree. State censuses records are a sometimes unexpected gem, only to be discovered by leaving no stone unturned.



One thought on “Using State Censuses for Genealogical Research”

  1. Love these state census records! I’ve found many an ancestor in the New York census of 1892, 1905, 1915, and 1925. Good reminder that not every state had its own census, unfortunately.

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