Census taking is not unique to the United States by any means. If you are familiar with the story of the birth of Jesus Christ, Mary and Joseph were on the way to Nazareth to be counted in a census. A lot of countries have taken censuses for far longer that the United States.
The U.S. started creating census records in 1790 and we have taken it every ten years since; on the years ending in "0." The most recently released U.S. census is the 1940 census. These records are only released to the public when they are 72 years old. The aggregate data is released rather quickly. That is to say one can find out the statistics about the demographics of their towns, states, or the country as a whole not long after the census is complete but to look at the actual records you must wait 72 years.
That retention schedule, as it is called in archives land, is based on life expectancy. It is assumed that in 72 years most of the people recorded in that census will have passed away and if not they will certainly be living with different family groups. This schedule is set to protect individuals' identities and personal histories. That is not to say that I have not had many clients who can find themselves in the 1940 census; I have. Many people come to genealogy later in life. It is kind of exciting to see someone see themselves listed on a census.
It is however rare to find a family group that extend back through the censuses without some finagling of search terms. Sometimes you have to use variant spellings or remove the dates of birth from your search criteria. Something.
You should start looking for your relatives in the most recent census, the 1940, and move back one decade at a time to the 1930, then 1920, and so on. Keeping in mind that the 1890 census no longer exists as it was destroyed after the Commerce Department Building in Washington D.C. caught fire in January 1921 and that the 1850 census is the first to list every member of the household, there are really 9 censuses I'm always looking for. Census records before 1850 are there but not terribly easy to use.
That is my dream though; to find a family group evolve from 1940 to 1850 in each and every available census. In my experience that is a rarity. There is always at least 1 of those 9 censuses which proves to be challenging to find "the family" in.
For example, I could not find my great grandparents in the 1930 for a really long time. That was because the penmanship of the original census taker made the name Earle look like Carle and so the indexer who ultimately put it online listed it as Carle. It took me years to find the record. It didn't happen until I searched by a combination of the first names of the household member and left out the last name entirely.
But the dream, oh the dream, to collect them all brings great satisfaction when it happens. Today it happened for me, I think.
I was looking more closely at census records for my great grandfather's sibling's family; Marion Fay-Leechin. Specifically I was looking for her eldest son, John Michael Fay.
- 1940: I saw Marion listed as Mary in the 1940 census at age 42 married to Thomas Leechin with 5 children including her son John Fay, age 20.
- 1930: She is listed as Marion Lee, age 32, living with her mother Agnes Fay, 2 children and 2 boarders. One of those two children is John Fay, age 10.
- 1920: I couldn't find her, or her mother, or John in 1920. More to come on this below.
- 1910: Marion was listed as Mary, age 12, living with her parents, Michael and Agnes Fay, 4 siblings (including my great grandfather James Fay), and her mother's aunt.
- 1900: Marion is just 2 living with her parents and 5 siblings. One of her siblings does not survive to the 1920 census.
- 1880: Marion is not yet born and thus not recorded in the 1880 census. Her parents are not yet even married. Michael Fay is 26 years old, living with his widowed mother and several siblings in Manhattan. Her mother, then known as Agnes Joyce, is 15 living with her parents and siblings in Manhattan.
- 1870: I find Michael Fay again living with his parents.
- 1860: Again I see Michael Fay with his parents.
- 1850: Michael Fay was not born until 1851 but in 1850 his parents are living together in some sort of boarding house or with friends or family in Saugerties, NY.
The dream. The Fay Family in every census. OH. Except that 1920 census. Where is Marion Fay?
Was she married? Is that why I can't find her? Does she have a different last name?
But what about her son who had his mother's maiden name later in his life - John Fay, did he have a different name at birth? He would have been about 7 months old at the time the 1920 census was taken.
Maybe Marion is listed as Mary again? Am I looking for Mary Fay? Mary something else? She would have been about 22 years old.
Marion/Mary may have been living with her widowed mother, Agnes Fay, who would have been about 54 years-old. Would she have had a different name too?
So I did a search specifically in the 1920 census for a John Fay born in 1919. And I finally came across this:
Could this be them? Agnes Fay listed as Fay, Tillie , age 54, widow; Marion listed as F. Manny, daughter, age 22, single; and John Fay, son, age 7/12 meaning 7 months old. If so, does it seem to you that Agnes was the head of a Shelter for Mothers with Children?
Is this them?