Using The 1880 U.S. Census To Locate Ancestors

Researching your ancestors can be an overwhelming endeavor, but starting with the 1880 United States Census is a simple, free way to start your family history.

Not long ago, if you wanted to look your ancestors up in a federal census, you had to go to a major library, look them up in one of dozens of enormous index volumes, then scroll through reels of microfilm, squinting at the archaic handwriting and trying to make something of it.

Now, though, you can just click your way to one of several websites and type in your ancestor's name. Then, bingo, without having to leave your house, you can search the entire United States 1880 census, free of charge.

What good will it do you to find your ancestors in the census? You may find some interesting and useful information.

I'll walk you through the information I found about my great-great-grandmother Harriet Thompson.

First, I went to one of the sites that offers the 1880 census for free. Ancestry.com or Familysearch.org are good places to look. I typed Harriet Thompson into the search criteria. I knew roughly when she was born (1855) and that she lived in Illinois, so I entered these criteria in to narrow the results.



The search engine found several people who fit my criteria, so I began to look at these people in more detail. I knew I'd found the right Harriet when I saw her husband and oldest son also listed in the same household.

Census takers of the 1880 census were required to right down certain information about everyone they located. They recorded name, relation to the head of the household (usually the husband), marital status, gender, race, age, birthplace, occupation, father's birthplace, and mother's birthplace. The census taker walked from house to house in an assigned county, so the census is also useful in determining neighborhood setup. The families listed just prior to and just after your ancestors were their neighbors, and you can often find other relatives by scrolling through the census a dozen households in either direction.

In my search, I discover that Harriet is listed as Harriet C. Thompson. Her relationship to the head of household is wife, so I know that S. M. Thompson was her husband. She is listed as a married white female, born in Illinois. Her occupation was "keeping house," and both of her parents were born in Virginia.

What else can I learn from this information? I can glean from this that her parents probably moved from Virginia to Illinois prior to 1855, since she was born in Illinois. I look through the rest of her household and learn that her husband's parents were both from Tennessee, that her son is three years old, that her husband is a farmer, and that the neighbors two doors down were also from Tennessee. Maybe there's a connection?

Obviously, you can't find everything about your ancestor from one census record. In fact, you really ought to have at least two sources to prove any given fact. For instance, a death certificate might also tell you the birthplace of your ancestor.

But checking out the 1880 United States census is a great place to start. You can get enough information from the census to send you in many new directions. I could begin looking in Virginia for Harriet's parent's birth records, or I could call the county McLean county courthouse for a birth record for her son to get an exact birthdate.

So give it a shot. You may learn something about an ancestor, and in doing so, you'll learn about yourself.

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