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Census Sensibilities
11/1/2003
You can count on the federal census to reveal numerous facts about your forebears. Boost your census smarts with this guide, and make new headway in your research.

What's the first thing many of us do when we discover new ancestors (after shrieking excitedly and taking a victory lap around the microfilm reader)? We rush to look up our kin in the census and give ourselves a sense that they were real people. While there's no set pattern to follow when tracing your pedigree, the federal census is a favorite starting point for many researchers — and for good reason. Census records can yield a wealth of clues about your ancestral families, and if you delve into these public records first, chances are you'll amass enough information to move on to other sources, such as county and state records.

The US census — a list of families and individuals living in each state and territory — has been a government staple for keeping track of the population since 1790. It's been taken every 10 years in order to apportion representation in the House of Representatives in Congress. Over the years, the government has asked more and more questions to learn demographic and economic information about the populace, making the census an integral tool for genealogical research. Many of the records provide ages, relationships, birthplaces and even occupations; they also can give you a good sense of the time and place in which your ancestors lived. All of these useful details are packed into a capsule format that's easy to read — if you know how to do it.

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