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Census Tips: 1870 Census

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The 1870 census was the ninth federal census. Census day was June 1, 1870. Information collected in 1870 was almost identical to 1860. In the ten years between 1860 and 1870, 4 new states were created. Some of these states were previously territories or area that were included in territories. Kansas became a state in 1861, West Virginia in 1863, Nevada in 1864 and Nebraska in 1867. There were also several territories new in 1870. Arizona became its own territory, as did Colorado. Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming were all part of both Nebraska and Washington Territories and now their own Territories. All states that existed in 1870 were enumerated and there are no missing records in 1870.

Map of North Carolina during the 1870 census

1870 Census: Changes

The 1870 census asked a few new questions. First, in relation to age, the enumerator asked if anyone in the home was born within the year and the exact month they were born. In a time that generally did not produce birth records, this can be a huge help. Another new question related to parents who were born in a foreign country. This can help identify immigrant ancestors. It also asked for men age 21 or older, and of those men, who had their right to vote denied on grounds other than rebellion or crime.

The 1870 census is important for those researching formerly enslaved ancestors as it is the first census many will appear in. As with those who were free during the time of slavery (more than 30,000 in North Carolina), race listed on the census was based on appearances and often changed from year to year. It’s common to see African Americans listed as white and vice versa. It’s also important to be aware that surnames may differ than what you know them as in later years. Although some who were formerly enslaved kept their surnames upon freedom, some also changed their surname. It was more common for surnames to change before 1870, but some waited a bit longer. For that reason, it’s important to pay attention to all members of the household and neighbors. These can give you clues to locate family. For example, if Sarah and Isaac Smith have a 12 year old daughter named Betsy in the home in 1880. In the 1870 census, you can’t find Isaac and Sarah Smith, but you do see a couple named Isaac and Sarah Jones with a 1 year old daughter named Elizabeth, there is a possibility they may be the same; although further research is required to determine that.

Potential Problems

As with all census records, there are a few issues that may cause trouble in finding individuals. One of the biggest problems is with the spelling of names. Things that can affect spelling include accents and literacy of the enumerator. Some things may seem straight forward like Brown, but they could still be enumerated as Browne, Brawn, or Brun. Be sure to check for spelling variations.

Sometimes the writing can be faded, the page torn, or bad handwriting, all of which can make things hard to read. A tip for discerning the letters in a name that are hard to read is to compare to other names within a few pages. For example, If you see a name that is new to you, but hard to read that looks like “Joker”, take a look at how the enumerator forms all the letters in the name. You might realize that “Joker” is actually another name. In this case, the first letter in the names James and Joseph looked the same;  I compared the -o and -er in Robert and it was very clear that it was -o, but not -er; I couldn’t find a -k to compare, but noticed it looked a lot like an -h. At this point, I had Joh-. I saw an Anna and realized the last letter was an -n giving the name John.

The Government and Heritage Library has 1870 census microfilm for all states that were enumerated, specifically: Alabama, Arizona Territory, Arkansas (includes Indian Territory), California, Colorado Territory, Connecticut, Dakota Territory,  Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Idaho Territory, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas Territory,  Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana Territory, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico Territory, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah Territory, Vermont, Virginia, Washington Territory, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming Territory. We also have published indexes for many of these states. Come and check it out!

Further Reading

Free printable charts:

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