5 Hidden Questions in the U.S. Federal Census

Posted by Linda Barnickel on August 24, 2016 in Research

It doesn’t take long for even a beginning genealogist to recognize the value of federal population census schedules. Tracing a family or individual back through censuses, taken every ten years, makes building a family tree or pedigree relatively easy. But within these schedules, even experienced researchers may forget or overlook these “hidden” questions from certain census years.

Revolutionary War Pensioner

The 1840 census – famously frustrating for its nameless “tick mark” approach to enumerating household members, nevertheless asks two key questions: the name of any Revolutionary War pensioners in the household, and their age. Often, the name of the pensioner is different than the head of household, as in this example from Lyons Township, Wayne County, New York, where Revolutionary War veteran Benjamin Avery, age 82, is in the household headed by Cyrus Avery. Benjamin’s information is easy to miss because it is on the second page of the census, far to the right of all of the white, free persons of color and slaves in the household. In the case of the Averys, Benjamin is enumerated with a tick mark in the “white male, age 80 to 90” category, and it seems probable that Cyrus is the “white male, age 50 to 60”. Although it is by no means certain, and would require additional research to confirm, it seems likely that Benjamin may be Cyrus’ father. By having Benjamin’s name listed on this census as a Revolutionary War pensioner (not just a veteran), the next logical step would be to look for a pension record for him, which undoubtedly should contain much more information.


Fugitive Slaves

On both the 1850 and 1860 slave schedules, in a column just following the “color” designation, is a column headed “Fugitives from the State”. This is a reference to runaway slaves. This column is usually empty, and can therefore be easy to miss, but if there is a tick mark there, be sure to follow the lead. Because only the name of the slaveholder appears in the census, use that as a lead to search out other resources. Examine local newspapers for runaway notices. Consult court records which might have resulted from a variety of circumstances related to the runaway incident, such as a claim for a reward, a dispute over slave ownership, jailor’s or sheriff’s fees for capturing and retaining the runaway slave, or a charge against an “agitator” who enticed the slave to flee. With both newspapers and court records, be sure to search in adjoining counties in the region, as well.



Civil War Veteran

Many genealogists know that the only significant part of the 1890 census to survive is the special Union veterans schedule, for some of the states. But what if your part of the country was among the records lost to fire, or if your ancestor served in the Confederate Army? The 1910 census provides an alternate resource. Here, Samuel J. Churchill of Kansas is marked as a Union Army veteran – though the cryptic notation of “UA” is obscured, and jumbled in with other, unrelated markings from the census taker.



Illness and Disease

The 1880 census asks questions about a resident’s medical condition. In some cases, the ailment or symptoms may be written out; other conditions are designated by a tickmark. In Decatur County, Tennessee, farmer I. Thomas Lacy was suffering from “chills and fever” on the day of the census taker’s visit. A nearby neighbor, Phillip E. Luck, has a tickmark indicating that he was “maimed, crippled, bedridden, or otherwise disabled.”


Foreigners Not Naturalized

Some genealogists may be aware of the citizenship and naturalization questions contained in later censuses, but the 1820 census has a column to indicate “foreigners not naturalized” as well. This question, like others that we’ve looked at, can be easy to miss because it is indicated simply by a tickmark.

Richard Hardwoody_1820 US Census


The above examples should demonstrate the importance of thoroughly examining every bit of information from each census – even for those census years that have a reputation for being less than helpful. A tickmark here, or a brief notation there, might provide you enough information to pursue other resources, or at a minimum, help you learn just a little bit more about your ancestors’ lives and circumstances.

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