Research Your Scottish Ancestry

The Census: A Decennial Family Records

Robert M. Wilbanks IV, B.A.
Chief Genealogist & Historian, C.S.A.

Robert WilbanksOne of the core foundational records of genealogy is the Census. Particularly for the beginner, the Census is one of the best all-around type of records used in the search for family history. Taken every ten years, the census becomes a decennial family record, providing a full picture of the family as it grows and changes over the course of multiple decades.

In the case of the United States, there is probably no other single group of records which contains more information about persons and families who lived during the 1800s, and early into the 1900s. Fortunately, most of the U.S. census records still exist. With online indexes, and full image access in a variety of online systems, researching the U.S. census is a fairly easy resource to search the family in each State every 10 years. A lot can be learned in a short period of time.

The first country to incorporate a census was the United States. It was begun in 1790, as a result of a Constitutional provision, and has been taken every ten years since. From 1790 to 1840 the census only lists the name of the head of the household with a count, usually as tally marks, of persons in that household according to age groups. Despite these limitations, even these early census records have proven to be invaluable aids in painting a complete genealogical picture, as well as useful tools to help locate and identify specific persons and families; placing persons and/or families in a time and place.

1850 saw one of the most significant changes in the United States census. Each individual, in a family, rather than just the head of the family, became the primary focus of the census. Instead of describing an entire family on a single line, as had been done in the earlier schedules, one line of the census was used to record varied pieces of information on each person within the household. This was the first census which would name every individual in the household, and include ages, place of birth, occupation, and other significant details related to each individual. Also, there is an implied relationship of individuals within a household to the head of the household.

Gradually, additional information, such as deaths and marriages, were added in the 1860 through 1890 census schedules. Most significantly, beginning with the 1880 census, the relationship of individuals within a household to the head of the household is stated directly.

The 1900 census began to inquire as to citizenship status of each individual, including year of immigration to the U.S. and whether naturalized. This becomes significant clues for further research in immigration and naturalization records which can identify place of birth in Europe. This continued through the 1910 and 1920 census.

The more recent U.S. census records are not yet available due to the Right to Privacy Act of 1974. The 1940 census is the most current census available to the public at this time. However, information from the most current census records can be obtained under special circumstances from the Bureau of the Census.

Meanwhile, in the United States, State and local census records exist for some of the States during the years between the Federal Census records. Additionally, Special unique Federal Censuses were conducted in conjunction with the regular Federal Census. Some examples of these are the Mortality Schedules, Indian Censuses, Agricultural Schedules, Slave Schedules, and Manufacturing Schedules.

Unlike in United States genealogy, where census records are the backbone of research, the census records of the various nations formerly of the historic British Empire are varied in consistency for informational content, as well as current existence and accessibility. For example, Canada did not begin taking the census until 1871. Ireland’s census records are virtually all lost from 1821 to 1891. In England, the 1801 through 1831 censuses are only tally counts with no names. Since 1841 the census records are complete and usually accessible in a variety of online sources.

Like England, Scotland’s 1801 through 1831 censuses are of no help. But the 1841 through 1911 censuses are fully extant and open for public use. However, uniquely for Scotland, the 1841 through 1891 censuses are not available on all the varied online subscription resources where you can readily find the complete U.S. and England census images. Only indexes to Scotland’s census records are available on these various commercial online resources.

1881 Census
National Records of Scotland 1881 Census

Access to all of Scotland’s census records, 1841 to 1911, are limited, worldwide, to one online site known as Scotland's People. The Scotland’s People website is the official Scottish Government website for searching a wide variety of Scotland’s government records and archives. It is managed, uniquely, as a Pay-per-View site. [The following information is not recently verified and subject to change: The minimum fee of £7 GBP (about $11 US) gives you access to the database for 90 days and gives you 30 page credits with which you view search results and documents (1 credit per page of search results viewed and 5 credits per document viewed).]

The census records significantly help you to locate where the family was living in a specific year, and provides you with a wealth of information regarding that family, such as who the children or parents were, dates and places of birth, marriage and death, occupation, year of immigration and whether naturalized. As you collect the census records for a specific family over the course of several censuses, a family picture will develop.

Also, searching census records will give you multiple directions for further research. Census records can lead you to where and when to locate birth, death and marriage records, occupational records, city directories, ships passenger lists, and naturalization records, which all can provide a wealth of additional information.

In the short and long term, census records can help you identify the family group fully, potentially directly identifying where in Scotland the family came from, or directing further research to records that can be more significant in that goal. Overall, the census is a great resource worth taking advantage of.