Hidden Gems in State Census Records

1854 painting of a census-taker in a family homeA father attempts to enumerate his household for the census-taker while a few of his children hide from view, foiling his efforts. Painting from 1854, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Many researchers assume that state and territorial census records are of limited value when a federal census record is available. They’re both census records, so they must contain roughly the same data, right?

Not necessarily. If you’ve skipped looking at state census records for this reason, you might be missing out on valuable information. In some cases, state censuses were actually first to include questions later added to the federal census. Many other state censuses include questions which were never added federally at all. These can be crucial sources for identifying ancestors who may have slipped through the cracks of federal census records.

Relationship to Head of Household

It was not until the 1880 federal census that enumerators were asked to begin recording the relationship of each individual to the head of the household. In the federal censuses of 1850, 1860, and 1870, there was no field to record the relationship, which often leaves genealogists to puzzle out the relationships between people in the same household with different surnames. Interestingly, relationships to heads of household were recorded on the state level all the way back in 1855 in the New York census, and were subsequently included in the 1865 and 1875 censuses. The question was also asked during the 1875 Rhode Island census. This is key information for researchers seeking individuals in either state who died prior to 1880.

Military Service

Military service was also noted on state censuses for decades before the question was introduced on the federal level in 1890. However, most of this census was destroyed in a fire in 1921, leaving the 1910 federal census as the first widely available federal census to include military data.

The first state to ask about military service was Alabama in 1855. In 1865, Minnesota, New York, and Rhode Island included a column for military service in census records, and Alabama did so again in 1866. These censuses can provide critical data for locating Civil War veterans who died prior to the 1910 federal census. Minnesota also asked about military service in 1895 and 1905, and Iowa asked whether individuals were associated with a militia starting in 1854.

Birthplace of Parents

From a genealogical perspective, the birthplace of an individual’s parents is one of the most critical questions to appear on the federal census. It was not introduced on the federal level until 1880, but it appeared on several state and territorial census records prior to that date. The first state census to include fields for the birthplace of a person’s parents was Rhode Island in 1865. Rhode Island included the question again in 1875, this time joined by Nevada and Minnesota. Another early adopter was Washington, which included parental nativity on territorial censuses in 1871, 1873, 1875, 1877, 1878, and 1879.

Emigration to the United States

The question of whether an individual emigrated to the United States was first included on the federal census in 1900. Prior to this, the question was asked by the New York census in 1855, New Jersey in 1865 and 1895, Rhode Island in 1885, Washington in 1891, and Wisconsin in 1885 and 1895.

Immigration History

In 1859, the territorial census of Kansas asked individuals to indicate the year they settled in Kansas. This question could be helpful for cases in which an ancestor was known to be in Kansas by 1859, but whose year of arrival is unknown.

Even more helpful are the Kansas state censuses from 1865, 1875, 1885, 1895, 1905, 1915, and 1925, which ask where the individual lived just prior to arriving in Kansas. This is different from asking where an individual was born, and can be useful for filling in the “missing links” between someone’s birthplace and final location. For example, if you’re researching someone who was born in Ohio and eventually settled in Kansas, this question could reveal that they lived in Illinois for part of their life, filling out a crucial detail in their life story.

Other state censuses with similar questions include the 1852 California state census, which lists the previous residence of each individual recorded, and the Minnesota state censuses of 1895 and 1905, which asked how long individuals had lived in their current location.

Arizona in 1864

While pre-1880 state census records tend to be relatively sparse, the Arizona territorial census of 1864 is considered one of the more detailed censuses of its era. This census asked individuals about their citizenship status as well as how long they had lived in their current place of residence. Town of birth is also listed for individuals who were born within Arizona.

Even more interestingly, the 1864 census also asks whether individuals are married and where their family resides. The fact that families living apart was so common that it warranted its own column is evidence of the transient nature of employment in the American west at that time.

Michigan in 1884

For the 1884 Michigan state census, enumerators were asked to record both the month and location of marriages which had occurred within the previous year. While the applicability of this data can be somewhat limited, this question can still serve as a key piece of evidence in certain cases.

Individual Census Cards

By the 1910s, some states began recording an extensive amount of information about individuals, far beyond what was gathered for federal censuses. Often times, those enumerated were recorded on their own individual cards, as was the case in South Dakota and Rhode Island.

In South Dakota, the following information was documented in 1915, 1925, 1935, and 1945:

  • Ancestry
  • What school they graduated from
  • Maiden name of wife
  • Year married
  • Church affiliation

And in Rhode Island in 1935, notable information gathered included:

  • Exact date of birth
  • School attended and grade
  • Illnesses the individual had experienced
  • If an individual was out of work, the reason why

Unique Questions

Some state censuses contain unexpected questions which can provide a unique look into daily life across the United States. In the Hawaii territorial census of 1890, students were asked to name both the school they attend as well as the name of their teacher at that school. Perhaps the most unique question, however, is from the 1915 Kansas state census, which asked individuals to report the number of books contained in their home libraries, not including school books.

State census records are an incredibly valuable resource for genealogists. Not only can they fill in gaps between federal census years—they can provide a surprisingly detailed view of an ancestor’s life which cannot be found anywhere else.


Further Learning

Census Records at AmericanAncestors.org
Discover a wide variety of state and local census records from across the United States and beyond, now available to search from American Ancestors.

Free Research Guides
The experts at American Ancestors have compiled a wide variety of free research guides, including some of the most popular states for family history research. These guides provide a comprehensive view of resources available for that state, including available census records and strategies for finding the information you need.

Free Video: Using New York State and Federal Censuses
In New York state, statewide registration of vital records did not start until 1880, which can make family history research difficult. In this webinar Director of Research Services Linday Fulton discusses the bright spots in New York research, including how state and federal censuses between 1850 and 1880 can help you fill in the gaps in your New York ancestry.

Zachary Garceau

About Zachary Garceau

Zachary J. Garceau is a former researcher at the New England Historic Genealogical Society. He joined the research staff after receiving a Master's degree in Historical Studies with a concentration in Public History from the University of Maryland-Baltimore County and a B.A. in history from the University of Rhode Island. He was a member of the Research Services team from 2014 to 2018, and now works as a technical writer. Zachary also works as a freelance writer, specializing in Rhode Island history, sports history, and French Canadian genealogy.View all posts by Zachary Garceau