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Genealogy Research: Census Records

This is a guide to conducting genealogical research at the West Virginia and Regional History Center

Introduction to Census Records

The federal government has enumerated the population of the United States every ten years since the first time in 1790. Census records provide various types of information depending upon the data that was collected. Different information was recorded in every census count. Additional types of information were gathered with each new census.

Although the 1790 and 1800 census were strictly population counts, the returns for Virginia have not survived. A substitute for the 1790 census was constructed from the 1782-1785 state tax enumerations of the following counties that are now part of West Virginia: Greenbrier, Hampshire, Harrison, and Monongalia.

These were published as:

United States Bureau of the Census. Heads of Families at the First Census of the United States Taken in the Year 1790 -- Records of the State Enumerations: 1782-1785, Virginia. (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1908. Reprinted: Baltimore, 1966 and 1970; Bountiful, Utah, 1978.)

The counties not included in that publication were subsequently covered in the following book:

Augusta B. Fothergill and John Mark Naugle. Virginia Tax Payers, 1782-87. (Richmond, 1940. Reprinted: Baltimore, 1966.)

Beginning with the 1810 census, census takers collected social and economic statistics, including data on manufactures, agriculture and industry, along with the names and numbers of people. Census returns for Virginia from 1810 through 1860 and for West Virginia from 1870 to 1930 are available on microfilm and through the online databases Ancestry and Heritage Quest.

Published indexes are available for all counties from 1810 through 1850 and for 1870 and 1880. Indexes for some counties, but not all, from 1860 through 1920 are also available in printed form. Indexes for the 1880, 1900, 1910, and 1920 census returns, known as the Soundex, are available on microfilm. Most of the 1890 census was destroyed by a fire, and only the special census of Civil War veterans and widows survives for that enumeration.

Census returns through 1840 include the name of only the head of the household and the number of other family members, which are enumerated according to sex and age groups. Beginning with 1850, the name of each free person in the household is recorded with his or her age, race, sex, and place of birth.

Separate slave schedules for 1850 and 1860 include the name of the slave owner, but not the names of the slaves. For the census years from 1850 to 1880, records of persons who died during the preceding year (called mortality schedules) are available on microfilm and in printed form.

In order to protect the privacy of those whose names appear in the census records, population schedules are closed to researchers for 72 years after the census is taken.