Welcome to Week Two of 8 Weeks to Better Rhode Island Genealogy Research: Census Records. Census records are an important way to keep track of our ancestors, and they provide one of the few long-term views of our ancestors’ comings and goings. Finding family in the 1940 federal census, and working back from there, can get almost anyone started in U.S. genealogy.
Federal Census records
The following federal census records should be available for our Rhode Island ancestors (links go to the record set on FamilySearch.org):
These census records are also available on many other genealogy websites and the list is growing all the time. I keep the census headers nearby at all times because they are often unreadable on digital census pages. I like these from Familysearch wiki (although they don’t include 1940) and I managed to add them to my two desktop backgrounds (using Picasa) so I always know where to find them.
Have you ever thought about which VERSION of the federal census page you are seeing? I love this article by Rhode Island genealogist Jeffrey Howe: Shortcomings of the 1850 Census by Jeffrey Howe, Rhode Island Roots 24:3/4 (Sep/Dec) p. 259-264. And this warning from Cherry Fletcher Bamberg: Navigating the Shoals of the 1810 Census and Beyond, Rhode Island Roots 37:1 (Mar 2011) p. 13-16. Census pages were copied over, reproduced, filmed, and distributed in many different ways. It’s important to think about whether we could, perhaps, find a better version.
Quick tip: If the federal census page you find online is problematic (blurry, too light, too dark, part seems cut off), try accessing another copy of the census through Internet Archive. Go to http://www.archive.org. Search in Books for “census”, county, state, year. For instance, “census Kent Rhode Island 1880” brings up this screen:
when you open the reel, you have to browse through it. Get the page number from the original census you saw, to help you find the right page quickly. Archive.org doesn’t have everything, though.
Quick tip: What with bad handwriting, fuzzy images and faulty indexing (and believe me I have won the trifecta on that a few times), you may find on occasion that you need to pull up a location and go PAGE BY PAGE, looking at every name. There’s a badge for that, I think. It’s called genealogist. So, good job! The links above would work well for that because you can go to BROWSE and narrow it down to the town.
One last thought: because Rhode Island is a small state, I was able to acquire compiled volumes of the federal census years 1790, 1800, 1810, and 1820 for Rhode Island rather cheaply as used books. These are very handy for seeing a whole town on just a few pages. Particularly for cases where spelling is unpredictable, like Lamphere, it can be better than searching. 1790 is a 1977 reprint by Genealogical Publishing, complete with a fold-out map, of what is a fairly complete transcription. 1800 is an index by Lowell M. Volkel. My 1810 and 1820 index books are by Ronald Vern Jackson.
Rhode Island Census records
Rhode Island enumerated the state population in the “-5” years, between the federal census years. Some of those survive. In the colonial era, a few census-like records were made. To get a more detailed listing of early census records, don’t miss the words of wisdom on the R.I. census records at the Rhode Island Genealogical Society website.
Colonial era census records
The most commonly used Rhode Island colonial census records are for 1774, 1777, and 1782. A list of sworn freemen, compiled 1747-1755, also serves as a kind of census.
Here are four books often seen in libraries:
- MacGunnigle, Bruce C. Rhode Island Freemen, 1747-1755. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1982. Look for additional freemen lists in the Records of the Colony of Rhode Island.
- Bartlett, John R., “arranged by.” Census of the Inhabitants of the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations 1774. 1858. Reprint, Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co, 1969. [Access on Ancestry.com at http://search.ancestry.com/search/db.aspx?dbid=3081 ]
- Chamberlain, Mildred M. The Rhode Island 1777 Military Census. Baltimore: Clearfield, published under the direction of the R.I. Genealogical Society, 1985. [Access on Ancestry.com at http://search.ancestry.com/search/db.aspx?dbid=49316 ]
- Holbrook, Jay Mack. Rhode Island 1782 Census. Oxford, Mass.: Holbrook Research Institute, 1979.
There are also newer transcriptions of the 1774 and 1782 census that are more faithful to the originals. Try finding the better 1782 transcriptions here and the re-transcribed 1774 census records printed, town by town, over a period of several years in Rhode Island Roots, volumes 29-35.
State census records 1790-present
Although not a census, the remaining fragments of the 1798 Direct Tax records (a federal fundraising effort administered by the states) can be very valuable for finding homeowners if your town’s records survive. This is available at the Rhode Island Historical Society – Robinson Research Center. Portions of the Newport lists are here at Internet Archive.
Rhode Island state census records are available for 1865, 1875, 1885, 1905, 1915, 1925, and 1935. Each census is quite different. 1895 did not survive (so, that was unlucky).
- 1865. Probably my favorite census of all time. It’s so complete, and the handwriting on the Providence pages is just perfect. It shows all members of the family, plus a full address, occupation, which school attended, place of birth (state or country, except if Rhode Island, and then the town is given), deaf, dumb, idiot, pauper, or convict, and military service. This is a unique opportunity to learn important details, so definitely try this one.
The 1865 census pages can be found on Ancestry.org. This page will allow you to search most of these Rhode Island State Census years. Note that 1905 is not in that collection.
- 1875. Similar in structure to the 1865 census, and will work from the same Ancestry.com link. Other than the Ancestry.com copies, the only other place I know to see 1865 and 1875 is at the Rhode Island State Archives. Possibly, microfilm copies may be held at other libraries.
- 1885. This is a confusing census, recorded in books where Male pages were separate from Female pages and entered in order only by first letter of the last name. You would expect to find, say, daughters with mothers, but children seem to be separated also, meaning that one family may be on 3 or 4 different pages, with the only connection being the city, ward, district and family numbers, not necessarily searchable. Have I lost you yet? This census can be found here on FamilySearch.org, and at the 1865 Ancestry link.
- 1905. Another favorite of mine. This census was recorded on cards, back and front. The cards for males and females differed slightly. There is an incredible amount of information on these cards; they provide the ONLY birth date for many of my ancestors. Here is my gg-grandmother Catherine Ross’ card:
Warning: FamilySearch.org is the only place I know to get the 1905 census online, but each record is indexed with some wrong information. Place of birth of the two parents is taken from the PREVIOUS card. To see the real data on the back of your card, click through to view the front more closely, then use the circled arrow in the top corner to click to the NEXT card; that will be the back of your card. Search here on FamilySearch.org.
- 1915. The national origins of parents are recorded as well as some occupational details, on normally laid out pages, in order by street address (the layout is similar to federal census records). The 1915 census can be found on Ancestry.com as well as this link at Familysearch.org.
- 1925. This census is more perfunctory, recording families in order by address, with only minimal information, including marital status, place of birth, and age. Find this census on Ancestry.com as well as at this link on familysearch.org.
- 1935. For this census, the state entered some kind of punch-card era with small cards. There is some good information on these, including birth date. Note the cards below, for my grandmother’s uncle Charles Falkenburg. He was enumerated twice, once in January 1936 and again in May 1936, and the data shows some important differences about his success at finding work in 1935 (many of my relatives were in the fine jewelry industry, which really never existed in Rhode Island again after 1929) and about his place of birth, which I believe really was Germany. A good example of how the census can make us nuts.
These local census records need close examination and study, but they can fill out your ancestor’s story beyond what is seen every ten years in the federal census. I encourage everyone to explore them fully.
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