Instructions for Census Takers

Do some of the entries in U.S. census records not make sense? I am not referring to the handwriting but rather the various entries in the different columns across the page. Why did they enter the information like that? What does it mean? Some columns are always filled in but others are sometimes blank. Why?

In the 1790 through 1870 collections of census information, the records were created by Assistant Marshals. A March 3, 1879 act replaced the U.S. Marshals with specially hired and trained census-takers (called “enumerators”) to conduct the 1880 and subsequent censuses.

During the early censuses, U.S. Marshals received little training or instruction on how to collect census data. In fact, it was not until 1830 that marshals even received printed schedules on which to record households’ responses. The marshals often received limited instruction from the census acts passed prior to each census.

Beginning with the 1880 census, door-to-door census by temporary census-takers was the primary method of conducting the census until the U.S. Census Bureau began mailing questionnaires to households in 1960.

Prior to every census, the Census Office issued Instructions to Enumerators (census takers). All of the sets of instructions have now been scanned, digitized, and are available on the U.S. Census Bureau’s web site at You can read the instructions given to the enumerator who wrote the information you are looking at.

Some of the instructions concern things I never thought about, such as the instructions for 1850:

“Eating-houses, Stores, Shops, &c.- Very many persons, especially in cities, have no other place of abode than stores, shops, &c.; places which are not primarily intended for habitation. Careful inquiry will be made to include this class, and such buildings will be reckoned as Dwelling-houses within the intention of the Census law; but a watchman, or clerk belonging to a family resident in the same town or city, and sleeping in such store or shop merely for purposes of security, will be enumerated as of his family.”

Sadly, the Instructions for Enumerators did not give handwriting instructions.


sally wasielewski June 29, 2015 at 9:19 am

you might also want to look at The History and Growth of the US Census, Carroll D. Wright (Washington Govt Printing Office 1900) which is online as well. The issue of whether the censuses are “original” comes up frequently in genealogy classes. This book covers what happened to the original documents–who filed, where etc.

Liked by 1 person

Some of the early enumerators were not very literate either, which created some interesting census entries. In the 1840 census, my great-great-great-great-grandfather was entered as an illiterate farmer with the name “Rite, Obie Dyer” which would have a modern spelling of “Wright, Obadiah”. I was able to identify him based on his children’s names. Apparently the enumerator was spelling names phonetically. You have to be flexible when reading census sheets.


It is interesting to read the instruction for establishing the age of a person being enumerated. The question was not “How old are you?” “but how old were you on a given date” and that date varied. Also the instructions regarding the age of a lady! The enumerated was told to never question a lady’s response, and it was OK for him to judge the age by observation. Read the complete instructions for establishing age in each of the census years and then estimate the number of enumerators that followed all directions; that even understood all the instructions.


how was race of an individual decided on the census. I have a family that the census goes by white, to mullato to black and family members are also classifed differently


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