AfriGeneas Genealogy and History Forum Archive
500 Million people culled from records
In Response To: 130 Years of Census Records ()
Back in 1930, Tom Hanks' grandfather chased squirrels for a living, Walt Disney lived in an $8,000 Los Angeles home, and Elvis Presley's family didn't own a radio.
These are just a few tidbits one can dig up from Ancestry.com, which has compiled an online database of information on 500 million people, culled from every U.S. census record from 1790 to 1930.
The census database -- a smaller and incomplete version of which has been publicly available for years -- has just undergone a major upgrade. Ancestry.com said this week that it has just completed a yearslong project and the genealogy Web site now includes all available information on people who lived in the United States across 140 years.
While other companies, such as HeritageQuest Online, and religious organizations, such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, have similar databases, Ancestry.com offers a comprehensive and searchable set of census data to consumers with a home computer and an Internet connection.
The site offers consumers a way to track down information that in the past could have taken months, even years, of painstaking research at libraries and archives.
Ancestry.com sells subscriptions for $29.95 a month, or $155.40 annually. The site also includes marriage and death records, and other public information.
"The thrill of being able to go online, and finding information in five minutes -- you can see what an incredible difference it makes," said Lou Szucs, Ancestry.com's chief genealogist. "There is something very magical when you find your family in the census. You want more and more. It's very addictive."
Chris Cowan, vice president of publishing at ProQuest Genealogy Center, which owns HeritageQuest Online, called the Ancestry.com database "a wonderful accomplishment."
"It is a massive undertaking to not only scan and digitize all the pages from the U.S. census, but then to have them indexed and to have all these millions upon millions of names identified and searchable, it really facilitates genealogical research in the consumer market," he said.
HeritageQuest's own census database covers the same period but it has not been indexed and is not directly available to consumers, he said. HeritageQuest is used by more than 4,000 public libraries.
A census of the U.S. population has been conducted every 10 years since 1790. Personal information is kept sealed for 72 years after each census, which explains why Ancestry.com's database ends at 1930. Data from the 1940 census will be unsealed in 2012, Ward said. Records for the 1890 census were destroyed in a fire in 1921.
The Ancestry.com project began shortly after the Web took off. MyFamily.com Inc. was a genealogy how-to publishing company when it started the Ancestry.com Web site in 1997.
Ward said researchers used to have to fly or drive to a library or local office of the National Archives to do research.
"Incredible," was how Szucs said she reacted to the possibilities the Web offered to genealogy research.
Sorting through microfilm reels containing census records can take enormous amounts of time. "When you are researching on one family, that can be a lifetime project," Szucs said.
U.S. census data offer a broad range of information, including the names, ages, occupations in each household. For specific years, the data even state whether a family owned a radio.
Ancestry.com includes screen shots of the handwritten forms filled out by census-takers.
For those curious about famous people, one can find out from Ancestry.com that Julia Roberts' great-grandfather worked as a farmer in 1910 and 1920; by 1930 he was a cafe manager.
In 1900, Henry Ford worked as an engineer and lived in rented quarters, according to census records. Twenty years later, he had a maid, a laundress, an English butler, a Japanese cook and a chauffeur.
The 1930 census says actor Hanks' grandfather worked for "Rodent Control." Another document in the Ancestry.com database is even more specific: "squirrel inspector." Records also show that Hanks is related to President Abraham Lincoln "through their common ancestors Sarah and William Hanks."
The database is also important for individuals trying to trace their roots.
"The U.S. census is where everybody winds up going to," Cowan said. "It's the core and centerpiece of genealogy research, and to be able to go back to 1790 is just invaluable."
The Ancestry.com database led Andrew Wait, a senior vice president at MyFamily.com, to question stories about his family.
Census records confirmed family tales that his grandfather worked as an air mail pilot, the occupation he listed in the 1920 and 1930 counts.
But an entry in the 1920 census made him suspicious of the family lore about struggling with poverty: The entry said his dad's family had a live-in maid.
"My father told me a lot of stories -- and over the years it got better," Wait quipped.
E-mail Benjamin Pimentel at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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