Using Ancestry: Nosy States Equal Pay Dirt for Researchers, by Mary Penner

In 1875, my ancestor George Wise owned eighty acres of land valued at $400. 500 rods of rail fence enclosed seventy of those acres. He planted twenty-five acres of corn and one acre of sorghum, plus he had two acres of orchards. That year his family made 150 pounds of butter. He had two horses, one milk cow, ten swine, and one dog.

Who’s responsible for cataloging these ancestral tidbits? The state of Kansas. Kansas was curious about all sorts of agricultural happenings in 1875. The state inquired about how many pounds of cheese farmers made and how many pounds of honey their bees produced. They also wanted to know how many sheep had been killed by wolves or dogs.

Was the Kansas government being particularly nosy? Some farmers may have thought so, but, actually, the state was conducting its regular census. Kansas surveyed residents every ten years between 1865 and 1925. In fact, many states obtained their own census data apart from the federal census. The states generally took their own censuses to apportion voting districts and to divvy up state government representation. But, since they had census takers slogging across the state counting heads, they figured they might as well get as much information out of their citizens as possible.

A state census can provide details about your ancestors that you might not find anywhere else. For example, in some years, the Kansas census asked individuals where they had lived before coming to Kansas. That’s a particularly handy clue for our nomadic ancestors who moved frequently. The 1856 Iowa state census asked how many years you had lived in Iowa, and the 1925 Iowa census asked for your mother’s maiden name and the location of your parents’ marriage. The 1935 Florida census asked how much education you had, and the 1885 Colorado census asked where your parents were born.

If you can find a state-sponsored census record for your ancestor, you’re likely to find valuable clues. That’s the good news. The bad news is the erratic availability of state census records. Because states have independent natures, census-taking was a sporadic affair. Not all the states were as disciplined as Kansas. Some states, like Kansas, conducted a census every ten years, while others conducted one every two, four, seven, or eight years–whatever suited its needs. Mississippi, for example, was particularly ambitious, taking at least fifteen censuses between 1801 and 1840. On the other hand, some states didn’t bother taking a census until seventeen or eighteen years after the previous one. Other states took none at all.

Not only do researchers have to contend with the random nature of the census years, they have to deal with finding those records. States managed to take the census, but didn’t always manage to hold on to the records. Some records were deliberately destroyed, and others were lost, misplaced or casually tossed, while others were victim to unfortunate disasters such as fires.

Begin your hunt for state censuses in the Ancestry Card Catalog. Type “state census” in the keyword search box and you’ll get a list of the many different records available online.

You can also check out the useful book by Ann S. Lainhart, State Census Records. (GPC, 1992) This book outlines which records exist for each state. Ancestry’s Red Book, by Ancestry Publishing also summarizes the state census records taken in each state.

Most of the original state census records are housed at state archives or libraries. Check the online catalog for the state archives where your ancestor lived. Many states have outlined on their websites what state census records are available.

Click here for a printer friendly version of this article.

Genealogist Mary Penner writes “Lineage Lessons,” a weekly genealogy column, for the Albuquerque Tribune. She can be reached through her website.

6 thoughts on “Using Ancestry: Nosy States Equal Pay Dirt for Researchers, by Mary Penner

  1. I have used the census records for research for a long time, and found them to be a very good source of information. I was not aware of what you stated about the extra census records for Kansas, so I will be checking them out. I used the Missouri Census’ records the most and have found them to be a valuable resourse, but there are times that we still have to look past the mistakes to glean the benefits and good from them. Thank you for this article. Every researcher should check census records for their families at least one time, they might hit a gold mine. Thank you. Evelyn Howard

  2. Tried to use ancestry site listed in your article and received the same response I usualy receive “cannot be found”. Is there a good reason why these listed sites are so often not found? DSR

  3. Doris, Which link are you having trouble with? I am able to access them as of now, so maybe it was a temporary glitch?

    Please let me know if you’re still having trouble. You can email me at


  4. I was very dis-appointed. When I search 1910 Ohio state census and entered RICHARD OR RICHART as the last name all that appeared was Richard as the first name. Then, when one click on the record, all one got was the registration form for a subscription,
    not even the state where the subject was born THIS SITE IS BIG WASTE OF ONE’S TIME

  5. Richard, IS a subscription database and well worth the money, I might add. I believe there is a free trial of a week or two to try it out before you commit. Try the free trial. You’ll “be hooked”. I speak from experience.

  6. I have requested to keep receiving Ancestry on line and finally got the 16 April page. Since that date I have not received anymore. I really enjoy the page, which I understand is now weekly.

    What do I need to do to keep receiving the column?

    Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *