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8 Posts authored by: Claire Kluskens Expert

Card files are yesteryear’s version of databases and spreadsheets – and they were everywhere. Think of grandmother’s recipe card boxes, library card catalogs, and the executive’s “Rolodex” of important phone numbers. Federal agencies created hundreds of card files that are now in the National Archives as cards or on microfilm, including First Lady Bess Truman’s recipe file with Washington Cream Pie:

Image: Bess Wallace Truman’s “Recipe Washington Cream Pie” (NAID 139308685).


Early computers used “punch cards” for their data feed.  In the photo detail below, women “punch card operators” were compiling data from the original 1940 census schedules onto punch cards that would then be “run” through computer tabulation equipment to obtain compiled statistical data for subsequent published reports.

Image:  Detail from “Card Punch Operators working on agricultural cards. Population and housing cards carried 45 columns. All other cards carried 80 columns.” Local Identifier 29-C-1B-41 (NAID 6200858).  From series: “Photographs Documenting the Sixteenth Decennial Census, 1940-1941” (NAID 513293).


After the compilation of data from the 1950 census was completed, the Census Bureau’s Geography Division created a card file with basic 1950 census population information that would serve as a quick reference file.  During the 20th century, the Geography Division determined the boundaries of enumeration districts based on the political boundaries of counties, towns, townships, villages, and other “Minor Civil Divisions” (MCDs), as well as known changes in population since the previous census.  After the 1950 census was over, they would start planning for the 1960 census.


The Geography Division’s Card File of Population Data Relating to the 17th Census, 1950 (NAID 2990400) contains one card for each state except that the following are grouped together on a single card: (1) the New England States; (2) Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia; (3) Kentucky and Tennessee; and (4) Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota.  There are summary cards for the United States and for U.S. Territories. The cards answer these basic questions about each state’s population in 1950:


  • How many counties did the state have (or parishes in Louisiana)?
  • How many Minor Civil Divisions (MCDs) did the state have in the 1950 census?  MCDs were townships, towns, villages, and other units of local government.
  • What was the state’s total population in millions?
  • How many cities with over 250,000 population did the state have, and what was their population total in millions?
  • How many cities with between 50,000 and 250,000 population did the state have, and what was their population total in millions?


For example, the card for Ohio, shown below, indicates the state had 88 counties with 1,447 Minor Civil Divisions. Its 1950 population was 7.9 million. It had 6 cities with over 250,000 people each whose total population was 2.6 million. In addition, it had 8 cities with between 25,000 and 250,000 people each whose total population was .7 million (700,000).


Image:  Ohio Population, 1950 (NAID 195936142).


Today, U.S. population statistics for 1950 and other years can easily be found online, although the speed with which information is retrieved may depend on our search terms, preferred search engine, and other factors. This record series reminds us of the important part that card files played in records storage and retrieval before the computer era.

Locating family members in the 1790 to 1940 census records can sometimes be challenging. These 20 tips for research success may help avoid frustration.


  1. Start with yourself. Organize what you know on an ancestral chart as well as on family group sheets for each ancestral couple. Write in pencil! Your knowledge will change and grow during your research.
  2. Start with ancestors who were alive in 1940. Find them on the 1940 census, and then work backwards to 1930, 1920, 1910, and so forth.... Expand your knowledge base by searching for ancestor’s siblings and other relatives. The more information you have about a family group, the more successful you will be in locating them in previous censuses.
  3. Use the clues (names, ages, birthplaces, occupations, relationships to other persons in the household) in one census to locate the same individuals in earlier censuses.
  4. Names, ages, birthplaces, and other information may not be 100% correct on each census. Accuracy depended on the knowledge or memory of the person providing the information. Only the 1940 census identifies which household member provided the information with an “X in a circle.”
  5. Names may be spelled differently than you expect. The enumerator may have written the name down according to his or her idea of how the name was spelled. The enumerator may not have asked how the name was spelled, and the family member answering the questions may not have been able to spell their own name. Some people are listed by initials, such as T. A. Smith, or by abbreviations, such as “Thos.” for “Thomas.” Think creatively!
  6. Many people had similar names so it is necessary to sort them out by other personal details, such as age, birthplace, family composition, and so forth.
  7. Some people were listed under erroneous names by mistake. For example, children of remarried widows may be listed under the stepfather’s surname instead of their own surname. Recent immigrants’ names were sometimes garbled by enumerators who had difficulty understanding foreign accents. Blatantly fictional names for real people were rare but were occasionally reported.
  8. The birthplace of foreign-born persons may reflect the person’s understanding of their “country” at the time they immigrated or at the time the census was taken. National boundaries were very fluid. Common generic “catch-alls” include “Great Britain” (instead of England, Scotland, Ireland, or Wales) or “Germany” (instead of specific principalities).
  9. Don’t ignore nearby neighbors:  they may be relatives, close friends, or neighbors from your own family’s previous place of residence. Related and unrelated families from one geographic area sometimes migrated to a new location where people they knew already lived.
  10. Most of the 1890 census was destroyed by fire, so the 20-year leap from 1900 back to 1880 may be hard to “jump.” The more information you collect about the entire extended family in the 1900 and later censuses can help you jump back to 1880. In addition, the 1890 “Special Schedules of the Eleventh Census Enumerating Union Veterans and Widows of Union Veterans of the Civil War” indicates where these individuals were living and information about their military service.
  11. Census records provide valuable clues to locate a person in earlier censuses and other records, including an approximate date of birth (1850-1940), place of birth (1850-1940), place of each parent’s birth (1880, 1900-1930), date of marriage (1900), number of children born to each woman (1900-1910), year of immigration to the U.S. (1900-1930), military service (1910, 1930), and ownership of real estate (1850-1940). Read Clues in Census Records, 1790-1840 and Clues in Census Records, 1850-1930 for more information. Carefully read census information so you don’t miss any valuable clues.
  12. The mortality schedules of 1850, 1860, 1870, and 1880—lists of persons who died during the year before the taking of the census—may provide information about family members who would otherwise have been omitted from the census because they were deceased.
  13. Check the agricultural schedules of 1850, 1860, 1870, and 1880 for farmer ancestors since these give interesting statistical data on the kinds and numbers of livestock, and the types and amount of food products grown on the farm during the year preceding the taking of the census.
  14. Check the manufacturing schedules of 1850, 1860, 1870, and 1880 for ancestors who engaged in businesses such as tanning, milling, coopering, or cheese making, among many others. Farmers often had sideline manufacturing businesses, too, so don’t ignore these if your ancestor’s occupation was listed as “farmer” on the population schedule.
  15. Census takers wrote down a person’s race based on his or her visual assessment of the person, so that variations in a person’s “race” (white, black, mulatto) over time is not unusual.
  16. Know the official census day! The information collected was supposed to be accurate as of the official census day, not the date the enumerator visited the household. These dates were August 2, 1790; August 4, 1800; August 6, 1810; August 7, 1820; June 1, 1830; June 1, 1840; June 1, 1850; June 1, 1860; June 1, 1870; June 1, 1880; June 1, 1890; June 1, 1900; April 15, 1910; January 1, 1920; April 1, 1930 (Oct. 1, 1929, in Alaska); and April 1, 1940.
  17. If you have trouble finding one ancestor, don’t give up researching! Instead, search for a different related person that likely lived in the same household or nearby or in the same community. You may find the first person you were looking for by that “back door” approach.
  18. Document your sources. For census records, details that will help you return to the same census record--or share it with another person--include details such as the census year, town, county, state, enumeration district number, and page (sheet) and line numbers.
  19. Don’t give up if the search engine “can’t find” the name or person you’re looking for. Don’t rely solely on online search engines. The data may not have been transcribed accurately. If it’s accurate, it may not be what you expect. Be prepared to read census records page by page, line by line to look for variations in names and information that simple searches miss (you can do this online, too).
  20. The 1950 census will be released on April 1, 2022. Start getting ready by compiling lists of ancestors and their places of residence.

Most people enumerated during the 1940 census will be found on the standard Population Schedule at the address that was their “usual place of residence,” a term that normally referred to the place that the person “regards as his home” and was “the place where the person sleeps.” The “usual place of residence” included people temporarily absent from home, such as persons traveling, attending school or college elsewhere, in a hospital, or enrolled in Civilian Conservation Corps projects.


Image:  Top Portion of Typical 1940 Census Population Schedule


However, in rare instances, some people will instead be found on Form P-10, “Nonresident Schedule.” Who are these people?  The Census Bureau’s Form PA-1, “Instructions to Enumerators: Population and Agriculture, 1940” explained in paragraphs 309 to 312, how nonresidents were to be enumerated:


  • 309. Nonresident Schedule.  If you find that the members of a household object to being included in the population of your district, claiming that their usual place of residence is elsewhere, enumerate them on a Nonresident schedule.


  • 310. The Nonresident schedule differs from the Population schedule in that it includes an inquiry on the location of the usual place of residence as well as the place of residence at the time of enumeration; it also includes the supplementary questions, which are to be asked of all members of any household enumerated on it.


  • 311. Do not assign a household visitation number to households enumerated on the Nonresident schedule. After completing the enumeration of a household on a Nonresident schedule, note in the Enumerator’s Record Book the fact that you have used the Nonresident schedule. You will be paid at the same rate for entries on the Nonresident schedule as for entries on the Population schedule.


  • 312. Mail completed Nonresident schedules, if any, to the District Supervisor at the end of each day’s canvass. Manila envelopes have been provided for the mailing of these schedules.


Some nonresidents were persons were at “tourist or trailer camps” on the night of April 8, 1940, for which the Bureau had special enumeration procedures. Paragraph 325 told enumerators: “Any household living in such a trailer is to be treated like any other household in your district ... unless the household is only temporarily in your district and claims it should be enumerated as resident in another district. In such a case, enumerate it on the Nonresident schedule.” This appears to be the case with Earnest and Lena McAllister of 600 Ruby Street, Niagara, Marinette County, Wisconsin, whom Archie B. Brown, enumerator for ED 58-8, found at “Salt Springs Camp” at Salt Springs, Election Precinct 1, North Sarasota, Sarasota County, Florida.  See image below.


Image:  P-10, Nonresident Schedule, for Earnest and Lena McAllister, which is Image 15 in

1940 Census Population Schedules - Wisconsin - Marinette County - ED 38-23 (NAID 139221104).


In the opening paragraph, I indicated that the Form P-10, Nonresident Schedule, is found only in rare instances.  Why?  The reason is the intense processing and post-enumeration compilation done by the Census Bureau in Washington, DC.


Following the completion of the enumerator’s work and field checks of the completed returns, the enumeration district portfolios were mailed to the Census Bureau in Washington, DC, for processing and compilation of the information into a tabular form for statistical research. Processing involved twelve different “operations” outlined in chapter four of Robert Jenkins, Procedural History of the 1940 Census of Population and Housing (Madison, WI: 1983).


During Operation 1, the staff routed the P-10 Nonresident Schedules to the Bureau’s Geography Division for assignment to the proper enumeration district.


During Operation 3, information on various supplemental forms, including the P-10, Nonresident Schedule, was compared with entries on the regular Population Schedules to determine whether the persons had already been enumerated. “If they had been enumerated, the forms were cancelled; if not, the information on the auxiliary forms was transferred to the population schedule.” Procedural History, p. 48. Great care was taken to determine whether the person was or was not already included on the regular Population Schedule. Finally, “When the entry could not be found on these sheets, the entry for the person was transferred from the individual census form to the sheets used for persons enumerated out of order, i.e., sheets numbered 61 and over.” Procedural History, p. 49.  Furthermore:


The procedures for transferring information from both the nonresident schedules and the absent-household schedules to the population schedule were the same. These procedures relied upon using the street and house numbers whenever possible If these numbers were not available, the name was used to examine the population schedules in order to determine whether all or part of a household had been reported.


When the clerks found entries on the population schedule, they checked the information with that on the nonresident or absent household schedule for discrepancies. If only part of a household appeared on the population schedule, the information on the rest of the members was transferred to the reserved spaces, if any, or to space on the sheets reserved or persons enumerated out of order. Similarly, if none of the members of a household had been listed on the population schedule, their information was transferred to space reserved for the household, if any, or to space on the sheets for persons enumerated out of order. Procedural History, p. 50.


Thus, in the normal course of events, the information for Earnest and Lena McAllister should have been copied from the P-10, Nonresident Schedule, to the Population Schedule. It didn’t happen. Why?


During Operation 1, a clerk in the Geography Division wrote “38-24” for their Enumeration District (ED) which corresponded to Niagara Village.  That 38-24 notation was then crossed out by a person with different handwriting who then wrote 38-23, which corresponded to “Niagara Town outside Niagara Village.” 


During Operation 3, the clerks undoubtedly looked diligently through the schedules for both EDs 38-24 and 38-23 but never found mention of this couple or Ruby Street. That street was probably not on any map held by the Geography Division. There is no Ruby Street on modern maps, either, but the closest phonetic “matches” are Burbey St. in Niagara Town (ED 38-23) or Dewey St. in Niagara Village (ED 38-24). Did the enumerator, Archie B. Brown, mistake Burbey or Dewey as Ruby?  In addition, there is a Ridge Street in Niagara, which, if written with poor handwriting, could be misinterpreted as “Ruby.”  Ultimately, instead of recording Mr. and Mrs. McAllister on the regular Population Schedule, the Bureau retained their P-10, Nonresident Schedule. It was placed it at the end of ED 38-23, and unintentionally preserves a record of their vacation or over-wintering in Florida in 1940.

The 1930 population census was the first U.S. census to ask about a technological device in the home with column 9: “Radio Set.” In paragraph 145 of their instructions, enumerators were told: “If the family, or any member of the family, has a radio set, write “R” opposite the name of the head of the family.  If the family has no radio set, leave this column blank." In the image below, the families of Edward Conway and Albert Wiemels at 1896 and 1900 W. 57th St., Cleveland, Ohio, both have radio sets, as indicated by the "R" in column 9:

Image from National Archives Microfilm Publication T626, Fifteenth Census of the United States, 1930, Roll 1763, Pct. S, Ward 3, Cleveland, Cuyahoga County, Ohio, ED 18-45, Sheet 17A.


Radio was “the” disruptive technology and new industry of the 1920s that massively altered how people received and consumed news, information, ideas, and entertainment. “Disruptive technology” can be defined as an innovation that significantly changes the activities or habits of consumers, industries, or businesses. Radio informed and modified cultural norms and entertainment. It created consumer demand for products through advertising. New entertainment stars became popular. Sporting events could be followed in real time. Radio was the internet and social media of its time. It was revolutionary.


Radio broadcasting for entertainment began as a hobbyist activity. After the World War I ban on civilian radio stations ended on October 1, 1919, Westinghouse engineer Frank Conrad of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, experimented with broadcasting phonograph recordings to other area “wireless” enthusiasts who had “wireless sets.” The Joseph Horne department store advertised in the Pittsburgh Press newspaper on September 29, 1920, that the wireless set it had on display had picked up Conrad’s concert and, oh, by the way, the store sold “Amateur Wireless Sets” for $10 and up. Westinghouse Vice President Harry P. Davis quickly realized that consumer demand for Westinghouse radio receiver sets would be greatly increased if there were radio broadcasting stations to provide “content” (to use a 21st century term). Thus, Westinghouse quickly applied for a commercial radio license which was granted 100 years ago on October 27, 1920. The assigned station name was KDKA, and is today recognized as the first commercial broadcast radio station. On Election Night, November 2, 1920, radio broadcasts by Westinghouse in Pittsburgh and by radio amateurs in Detroit, Michigan, and Buffalo, New York, informed the public of the results of the Harding-Cox presidential contest. A new era had begun.


American political leaders viewed radio as a potential source of cultural "uplift" for the population, as represented by this 1924 photograph of “Master Harold Shaver of Jersey City learns to draw by listening in to lessons broadcast by WOR,” Library of Congress Reproduction No. LC-USZ62-38569:


The use of radio as an educational tool in the classroom was also discussed and debated, such as in Carroll Atkinson, Development of Radio Educational Policies in American Public School Systems (Edinboro, PA: Edinboro Educational Press, 1939).


At the same time, business leaders viewed radio as a powerful tool for advertising and selling all kinds of mass-produced goods, just as Davis of Westinghouse had quickly realized, and as captured in the catchy article title by Steve Craig, “The More They Listen, the More They Buy” – Radio and the Modernizing of Rural America, 1930-1939,” Agricultural History, Vol. 80, No. 1 (Winter 2006): 1-16.


The brand-new radio industry grew rapidly. In 1930, just ten years after KDKA began, Ruth Cornwall noted in “What About Radio?” (H. K. McCann Co., 1930), that there were more than 500,000 workers employed by 640 manufacturers; 1,500 wholesalers; and 43,822 retailers of radio sets, parts, and accessories - in addition to the 626 U.S. radio stations with their accoutrements and employees.


Thus, after 1920, the radio set became increasingly common but it was not until 1950 that 95% of American households owned radio receivers. As a luxury good, it was not evenly found across all sections of the country or all segments of the population.


The 1930 census statistics showed that 40.3% of all families owned a radio set, but it was more widely adopted in urban areas, with ownership at 50.0%. Ownership in rural farm families was 20.8% and in rural non-farm families, 33.7%. Interestingly, radio ownership by U.S.-born whites who had one or two foreign-born parents was 57.3% overall, which was much higher than ownership by whites with two native-born parents, which was 39.9% overall. Radio ownership by African-American radio was only 7.5% and by other races, 5.9%.

Radio ownership in urban areas and the northern U.S. was much more widespread than in the south, as shown in this map created by the Bureau of the Census:

Researchers interested in additional statistics on radio ownership by region, state, county, city, and other variables, can learn more in Fifteenth Census of the United States: 1930, Population, Volume VI, Families (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1933).


As we know, over time radios were adapted for many other consumer uses, such as installation in automobiles, as shown in Patent 1959869, Radio Control Device, by William P. Lear, May 22, 1934:

In subsequent censuses, questions about radios and other technological devices were relegated to the decennial housing schedules that were completed by only a sample of the full population:


Radios: 1940, 1950, 1960, 1970.

Television Sets: 1950, 1960, 1970.

Telephone: 1960, 1970, 1980, 1990, 2000.

Air Conditioning: 1960, 1970, 1980.


Since 2005, technological device questions are included in the American Community Survey (ACS) sent annually to a population sample of about 3.5 million households. In the beginning, this survey only asked whether the household had a telephone (including cellphone), but now (2020) asks about telephone, smartphone, desktop or laptop computers, tablet or other portable wireless computer, and internet access by cellular data plan, broadband, satellite, dial-up, or other means.  The technological revolution continues!

National Archives staff member Claire Kluskens will participate in a panel discussion as part of Howard University Television’s preview of Season 6 of “Finding Your Roots” by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., on Thursday, 15 October 2020, at 6:30 p.m. This online event is free but you must register at

Some people are difficult - sometimes impossible - to locate in population census records. The reasons vary widely. This post will take a brief look at the unusual situation of blatantly fictional names.


During the 1910 census, Joseph P. Farrelly was assigned to be enumerator of Enumeration District (ED) 27, Ward 3, Precinct 1, of New Orleans City, which was an area bounded on the north by Canal Street, on the east by the Mississippi River, on the south by Julia Street, and on the west by Baronne Street. Some residents of this ethnically and racially diverse area worked in occupations that supported the bustling seaport, where riverboat and railroad traffic delivered agricultural and industrial products for export to the world on ocean-going vessels, and in return, those oceanic vessels delivered imported food and goods.  The photo below, annotated to show the approximate boundaries of ED 27, is a detail from an aerial photograph taken on April 6, 1937.  Canal Street is on the right; Lafayette Square is in the upper middle of the ED.

Thousands of men and women lived as lodgers in crowded multistory racially segregated boarding houses. As long as rent was paid, some boardinghouse keepers probably didn’t want to know too much about the personal circumstances of their lodgers (also called boarders).


For the proprietors of boarding houses and their wives and family members, the information is usually complete: name, age, birthplaces, occupations, and so forth. In contrast, much information is often lacking for the lodgers.  Their names are given, but other information is indicated as “unknown" unless (apparently) the lodger himself was at home and available to provide it. Even some of the lodgers' names are incomplete: first name only, surname only, and even obvious fictional (invented) names.


On Tuesday, April 26, 1910, the 11th day of the census enumeration, Joseph P. Farrelly visited a number of large lodging houses in his enumeration district.


At 600 Fulton Street, a Black couple named Elijah Cheevies, 35, and Rosie Cheevies, age 26, operated a lodging house in a rented building. They had 17 lodgers, whose age, marital status, places of birth, parents’ place of birth, and ability to read and write were given as “un” (unknown). Each was said to be employed as a “roustabout” on the “River,” but whether they were employed on April 15, 1910 or working for themselves or an employer were said to be “un” (unknown).  A roustabout was an unskilled or casual laborer, such as a  a dock laborer, vessel deckhand, or oil rig laborer. Most of the lodgers at the Cheevies house had plausible names that were probably reasonably correct, but a few had names that were clearly invented pseudonyms. Here is the full list of lodgers: Jeff Anderson, Archie Robertson, Davie Hughes, Jim McMiller, William Turner, Tom Morgan, George Clark, George Washington, George Brown, Dallar Doff [Doff Dollar?], Another Time, Black Diamond, Sid Smoky, Clara Robertson, Will Murray, and Peter Buttons. (National Archives Microfilm Publication T624, Thirteenth Census of the United States, 1910, Roll 571, New Orleans, Louisiana, Ward 3, Precinct 1, ED 27, Sheet 14A, Lines 5-23). Here is a detail showing that household:

Additional persons sporting fictional names were reported across the street at 601 Fulton Street, another Black lodging house. The proprietor of this establishment might have been Annie Bell, age 52, a white widow, who lived around the corner at 319 Girod Street, whose occupation was described as the keeper of a rooming house. Since her daughter and son-in-law, Mary and Joseph Brown, were the only other residents of 319 Girod, the rooming house had to be a separate nearby building, and 601 Fulton was likely it. Some of the lodgers have plausible names and personal information, while others clearly have invented names: Pretty Shirt Willie, Brass Check Ben, Knox Point, Jim Topsy, Big Smoky, Pittsburg, Bud Hoot, Dollar Bill, Buck Tooth, Ham Sandwich, Fool Kelly, Bare Foot, Black Mace, and Hard Leather.  The enumerator was supposed to record names in “last, first” format, but may not have always followed that rule, so it is sometimes difficult to be sure which part of invented names were intended as the “first” or “last” name. (National Archives Microfilm Publication T624, Thirteenth Census of the United States, 1910, Roll 571, New Orleans, Louisiana, Ward 3, Precinct 1, ED 27, Sheet 13A, Lines 1-50).  Here is a detail showing some people in that boarding house:

Fortunately, blatantly fictional names intended to identify real people are fairly rare in census records.  Mr. Farrelly was probably as diligent as any enumerator. The job was temporary, but not necessarily easy. The census enumerator was an agent of the federal government, but successfully completing the job required persuading people to cooperate. The enumerator also had to judge when imperfect and incomplete information would have to suffice.  So, sure, you can record my information on the census, just call me Another Time and bring Ham Sandwich with you!

The 1940 census is the only U.S. Federal population census for which the researcher can be absolutely certain who answered the enumerator's questions in every household. This can be useful in evaluating the quality and accuracy of the information.  Did the person giving the information know what they were talking about? Are the ages, birthplaces, and other data comparable to information found in other records?


Question 7 on the 1940 census population schedule – "Name" – asked for the "Name of each person whose usual place of residence on April 1, 1940, was in this household." It also directed that "Ab" be written after the names of any person temporarily absent from the household and to record any child under the age of one as "infant" if it had not been given a name. Finally, it directed the enumerator to "Enter (X in a circle) after name of person furnishing information." This image shows the "Name" instruction block which is at the top of each census page:


1940 Census Question 7 Text Block


It was typical for the enumerators to mark the "X in a circle" after the name of only one person in each household, such as seen in this detail from the first page written by Florence Irene Bock, enumerator for Enumeration District 28-19, Russell Township, Geauga County, Ohio:

Detail from T627, 1940 Census, Enumeration District 28-19, Sheet 1A, Russell Township, Geauga County, Ohio


In contrast, Norman G. Wendt, enumerator for Enumeration District 28-7, Chester Township, Geauga County, Ohio, frequently marked the X in a circle after the names of multiple people in the households he visited, especially where there were lodgers or in-laws. Her is a detail from the first page of his enumeration:


Detail from T627, 1940 Census, Enumeration District 28-7, Sheet 1A, Chester Township, Geauga County, Ohio


The 1940 Federal Population Census can be found online in the National Archives Catalog at "Population Schedules for the 1940 Census" at and on websites such as and  Happy hunting!


This post is the first of a series of blog posts about U.S. Federal census records. I hope you find it useful.

As the National Capital region continues to dig out from two feet (or thereabouts) of snow, it's a good time to reflect on the genealogical uses of Record Group 27, Records of the Weather Bureau.


Our farm family ancestors kept close watch of the weather and it certainly affected their economic well-being much more than it does us city dwellers. Today, only 2% of the U.S. population are farm families; in 1790, they comprised at least 90%.


While the Weather Bureau was not established until 1890, the federal government's interest in collecting weather information dates back to the 1810s, when army hospital, post, and regimental surgeons were directed to keep diaries of the weather. These duties were transferred in 1870 to officers reporting to the Chief Signal Officer. Meanwhile, from 1847 to 1870, the Smithsonian Institution collected data from voluntary observers throughout the country. All of these observations are available on National Archives Microfilm Publication T907, Climatological Records of the Weather Bureau, 1819-1892 (562 rolls), which is not online.


Information about weather can be useful background information that puts flesh on the bones of those ancestors. What was the weather like on the day your ancestor was born? Married? Died? Or at some other point his or her life? You may not find an answer for your precise location, but a nearby one might be close enough. One of my grandfathers was born in November 1888, but his birth was not recorded until the spring of 1889. One suspects weather had something to do with it - even though the winter of 1888-89 was not as epic as that of January-March 1888


Our retired colleagues, Constance Potter and Kenneth Heger, used to give a lecture called "Stormy Weather" that was all about the genealogical uses of weather information from federal records. Connie presents some of that information in De Smet, Dakota Territory, Little Town in the National Archives, Part 2.


The year 1816 was known as "1800 and Froze to Death" (as well as "The Year without any Summer" and other appellations). It was a year when there was frost or snow in nearly every month, and farmers planted crops two and three times only to see them die. Many farm families from the northern United States moved west in 1817 in hopes of a better future.


in 2005, Hurricane Katrina displaced thousands from New Orleans, Louisiana, with many never to return.


Weather matters.


In addition to T907, other useful federal records are:


Nonfederal sources of information include articles in newspapers in the area where your ancestors lived. For example, the Columbus, Ohio, Statesman of February 15, 1842 reprinted a news item from the Cleveland Herald that described a "Terrible Tornado" in Mayfield, Cuyahoga County, Ohio, and Kirtland, Lake County, Ohio, that caused considerable damage. More than 30 people with their losses ("house unroofed," "barn unroofed," "barn demolished," etc.) are mentioned. Local newspapers may be available on microfilm at local public libraries, or in online databases such as and


May the sun always shine on your genealogical research!