Geostat Center: Collections: Historical Census Browser
: "The data presented here describe the population and economy of U.S. states and counties from 1790 to 1960. Information about individuals is NOT on this website"
"Honoring Our Ancestors: Playing with the Census"
by Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak
I'm one of those who can't resist playing with a new toy--especially
if it's even remotely genealogical in nature. And recently, I
entertained myself for a few hours with the Historical Census Browser
found in the Geostat Center portion of the website of the University
of Virginia Library
WHAT'S A CENSUS BROWSER?
Just as we routinely browse the Internet, this site allows us to
browse through the piles of data that have been collected by the U.S.
Census Bureau from 1790 to 1960 (as well as additional information
from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Council of
Churches of Christ). There's no person-specific data, but if you have
an interest in the social context in which your ancestors lived,
you'll appreciate the insight this tool can offer.
We all know that the information collected by census takers shifted
each decade, and this database reflects that reality. For the
earliest census years, all details are included, but in later years
when the questions multiplied, the information was more selectively
transcribed. For instance, basic population, housing, race and gender
data can be found for all years, but from 1840 on, you can peek into
other aspects of your ancestor's world, such as the:
- Number of daily newspapers
- Number of slaves
- Number of libraries
- Value of livestock
- Number of churches
- Number of native-born persons who cannot write
- Number of farms
- Assessed valuation of personal property
All of this exploration can be done at the state or county level, so
if you're finally getting around to writing that long-delayed family
history, you may be able to fill in some of your gaps.
Not sure how typical your literate, farm-owning, German-born great-
grandfather was in his state or county? Now you have the means to
find out whether he was just one of the guys or a stand-out.
Wondering whether your forebears settled in an area of religious
compatriots or were wealthier than most in their area? You can have
your answers in minutes. Still haven't convinced your grandkids that
your Italian family was a curiosity in 1930 South Carolina? Maybe the
fact that there were only 188 Italian-born individuals in the state's
population of 1,738,765 will make an impression.
So how do you find the answers to your questions? Let's use the
Italians-in-1930-South-Carolina scenario as an example. The first
step is selecting the year of interest from the menu provided at the
top of the page, so you'd start by clicking on 1930. Then you would
browse all the categories that appear for topics relevant to your
questions. In this case, you would highlight "no. white persons born
in Italy" within the "Place of Birth" category. For purposes of
comparison, you'd also want to select "total population" in the
"Population Characteristics" category (Incidentally, if you want to
select more than one factor within a given category, you simply hold
down the Control key while making your selections). At this point,
you would scroll down to the bottom of the page and click on "Browse
A few seconds later, you'll be taken to a page with all the data for
the entire country. It defaults to presentation by an alphabetical
listing of states, but in most cases, you're going to want to see the
results in some sort of numerical order (low to high or vice versa).
To do this, go to the "Resort Data" box (which would probably be a
little more intuitive if labeled "re-sort data") on the left of the
screen. Using the drop-down menu, select the variable by which you'd
like to sort (since I was more interested in the Italian aspect than
the overall population, I chose "no. white persons born in Italy")
and indicate whether you'd like the results in ascending or
descending order by toggling between the two options under the drop-
down menu. Then click on the gray "Revise State Table" button just
underneath. Your results will be instantly re-sorted, so that you can
scroll down the page and easily see that only the two Dakotas had
fewer Italian-born residents than South Carolina.
A FEW MORE OPTIONS
If you're the kind who doesn't like wading through a sea of numbers
and prefers their data in tidy graphs, you'll want to head back to
the top of the screen to the Graph a Variable box on the right. Hit
the Graph States button and *poof*--instant graph.
Or perhaps you want to drill down on the data a bit. Where in South
Carolina did those Italians live? Go back to the page with the state
table and check off South Carolina by clicking on the small square to
the left. Then go to the bottom of this left-hand column and click
View Counties. The results will show that there was a definite
clustering effect, with 101 of the 188 Italian-born residents living
in Charleston County.
A few minutes spent experimenting with the various options will
enable you to extract a wide variety of insights from the Historical
Census Browser. To give you a sense, I hopscotched my way through the
database and did a little digging every forty years: 1790, 1830,
1870, 1910, and 1950. Here's a sampling of what I learned:
- Maryland was home to exactly half (599) of the 1,198 persons of
Hebrew nationality in the country at the time.
- The urban legend about English defeating German (by a one-vote
margin) as the official language of the U.S. back in the late 1700s
seems a little suspect when you see that persons of English and Welsh
nationality outnumbered persons of German nationality 2,042,077 to
- For every free colored person (312,603), there were roughly 6.4
slaves (or a total of 1,987,428). Only Vermont is listed as having no
- Of those recorded as being one hundred years of age and over, about
55% were slaves.
- There were almost six times as many persons born in Poland (5,735)
as persons born in Portugal (965) in the U.S. at that time.
- Indiana had the most farms under three acres (1,565), while
California had the most farms over one thousand acres (713).
- California was by far the fruitiest and nuttiest state, with a
value of fruits and nuts of 50,706,869--over a fifth of the nation's
total value of 222,018,096.
- Politicians wondering whether to carry favor with the foreign-born
would have been most prudent to do so in New York, Illinois,
Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts, which collectively contained 46.7%
of naturalized foreign-born white males of voting age, foreign-born
white males of voting age, and alien foreign-born white males of
- New York was first both in people with 4 of more years of college
(694,545) and in institutional population (209,786).
1950: California and Texas demonstrated the greatest internal and
incoming mobility with the largest numbers of persons living in
different house in 1950 than in 1949, but same county and persons
living in a different county or abroad in 1949.
Total population climbed through the years as follows:
- 1790: 3,893,874
- 1830: 12,785,928
- 1870: 38,155,505
- 1910: 91,641,195
- 1950: 149,895,183
This is just the proverbial tip of the iceberg in terms of the
information that can be gleaned from this database, so why not take a
little time to see if you can gain some perspective on the socio-
economic environment in which all those folks in your family tree
lived? Happy browsing!
Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak
, author of "Honoring Our Ancestors (HOA),"
"In Search of Our Ancestors: 101 Inspiring Stories of Serendipity and
Connection in Rediscovering Our Family History," and "They Came to
America: Finding Your Immigrant Ancestors," can be contacted through
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