The 1950 census: just the beginning

My colleague Chris Child wrote a controversial post last month about the merits of the 1950 Census. The title of the post was triggering, but I must admit that I agree with his overall argument. According to Chris, “…the census has spoiled us. Because it is often so quick to search, we might overlook other valuable resources because of how long looking through those records might take us. This is not meant to diminish the importance of the census, only to partially explain why it is used more than other records.”

He is right—genealogists, especially genealogists who are “new” to the field, are spoiled by lightning-quick access to records. However, I would argue that this doesn’t necessarily make research any easier, as it puts more pressure on us to find more and more records for our ancestors. If you are going to do it right, the census serves as a introduction to many additional records. Said another way, having just a census record isn’t good enough; you need to collect all of it: Social Security Applications, DD-214 Records, Tax Photos, City Directories, Fire Insurance Maps, Newspapers, and so on.

[Gather] everything you can about your ancestor, using the census as a springboard.

I recently gave a talk about the 1950 Census where I discuss this very strategy: gather everything you can about your ancestor, using the census as a springboard. To help navigate what exists, I also made a worksheet, to help jog your memory. For example, if your ancestor is included on the 1950 Census and they answered yes to Question 14 (“If foreign born, is the person naturalized?”), then you should also be looking for Naturalization Records, Passenger Lists, Passport, Newspapers, and 1920 US Federal Census. Or, if your ancestor was lucky enough to be one of the selected few (20% of the population) to answer Question 26 (“What is the highest grade of school that he has attended?”), you should then research Yearbooks, School Records, Newspapers, Broadsides, Diploma, and Class Books.

So yes, Chris was right to say that other records are often overlooked because they are more difficult to research, but that shouldn’t be the way! It should be the exact opposite! Researchers should use all the detailed information included in the census to learn more about the life of their ancestor and not be satisfied with just the 1950 census entry. To me, the census is just the beginning…

About Lindsay Fulton

Lindsay Fulton joined the Society in 2012, first a member of the Research Services team, and then a Genealogist in the Library. She has been the Director of Research Services since 2016. In addition to helping constituents with their research, Lindsay has also authored a Portable Genealogists on the topics of Applying to Lineage Societies, the United States Federal Census, 1790-1840 and the United States Federal Census, 1850-1940. She is a frequent contributor to the NEHGS blog, Vita-Brevis, and has appeared as a guest on the Extreme Genes radio program. Before, NEHGS, Lindsay worked at the National Archives and Records Administration in Waltham, Massachusetts, where she designed and implemented an original curriculum program exploring the Chinese Exclusion Era for elementary school students. She holds a B.A. from Merrimack College and M.A. from the University of Massachusetts-Boston.

6 thoughts on “The 1950 census: just the beginning

  1. Researching thoroughly is good, especially for the young. But if we are coming to this hobby/passion/obsession later in life, we need to determine our own goals. Do we want to know everything about the more recent generations, or do we want to try to find all ancestors in a certain line, geographic area, or time period? My goal is to find all my immigrant ancestors, and if possible, find where the family originated. I will never succeed, but this is what is important to me. I really am only marginally interested in some of the things that other people think are important. Genealogy is big enough for all of us, and to each, may your search be successful!

  2. In fact I agree with Chris Child up to a certain point. Yes there are a lot of other resources available than just a US census but the closer they come to the present time the closer they can show us a snapshot of a family at a certain time with all the children and any family members outside the parents that might be living with them. But the closer we get to the present we have issues like privacy issues, and the difficulty of getting current birth marriage and death certificate in most of the states. Specially that’s the problem after September 11, 2001 and the big worry about identity theft. As we all know, once we get something from the 1850 census we can’t wholesale think that the family unit is such yet. That’s because the family unit is not differentiated until later censuses. So of course you have to do more legwork to find out the maiden name of the wife and the full list of kids and how long they lived. I think most genealogists would like much more open records but that’s never gonna be the case. But for 20th-century families these sentences are valuable and are the starting points for further research.

  3. The worksheet you put together will lead to things that I probably would have swept past. Thank you for your work.

  4. I agree, too. My grandmother’s name was misspelled in 1880. One tree at ancestry refuses to change the spelling. Good luck finding her using the name they used. Fortunately, they’ve copied everything else from my tree.

  5. WOSER! Just found your post, Lindsay. What a Resource! Deserves to become a Portable Genealogist item. No, seriously. In fact, EVERY US Census likely deserves its own PG production. Saving it NOW.

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