census records

DOCUMENTS — Our 16th president was just a lawyer in Springfield, Illinois, at the time of the 1850 census.

So why are U.S. Census records only available up to 1940? The “72-Year” rule is the reason.

According to federal law, personal information about an individual is not publicly accessible for 72 years from the time it is collected during the decennial census. Information within that time frame only can be released to the named individual or a legal heir.

Thus, the most recent census data we can examine is from 1940. But we won’t have to wait long to start exploring the next collection: records from the 1950 U.S. census will be released publicly April 1, 2022. Although they won’t be generally searchable for several months, you will be able to look by location.

To request recent data for yourself or your family, visit census.gov. While you’re at the site, check out the “Famous and Infamous Census Records” page. This fascinating collection includes hundreds of downloadable reprints of the actual census pages for a range of notable, and some notorious, Americans. You’ll find poets and presidents and scientists and sports stars and even Elvis (plus a mix of gangsters and assassins).

The only Kokomo native is the diminutive child circus performer Nellie Keeler. She is listed with her parents in the 1900 census at Versailles, Ind. Keeler died there of tuberculosis three years later at age 28.

Besides chronicling interesting individuals, census records are a unique timeline of our national culture and progress. “Social statistics,” e.g. taxes, level of education, crime, etc., were first compiled in 1850. Fast forward to 1930 for the first consumer item — does the home have a “Radio set?” And Social Security questions were added as part of the 1940 supplemental survey.

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All genealogists eventually encounter the gap in the timeline. A part of U.S. history was lost in 1921 when the Department of Commerce building burned in Washington, D.C., destroying the 1890 census records of 63 million Americans.

For your own family searching, census data can be accessed free of charge through census.gov (up to 1940 of course). Ancestry.com and Family Search connect to the records as well (with subscriptions to their sites). The free library version of Ancestry is available through the Kokomo-Howard County Public Library (khcpl.org). A valid library card also gets you access to HeritageQuest, a massive online resource that has everything from Revolutionary War pension files to The Freedman’s Bank records — an important resource for African-American genealogy — and the U.S. Serial Set of government documents back to 1789. And the census too.

The team at the Family and Local History department at KHCPL can guide you through the census, especially ways to cross-reference information across all the available resources.

Ron Tetrick of the genealogy staff helped me with research relating to the Foster family, who donated the land for Kokomo. David and Elizabeth’s youngest child (of their 11), named Louisa, made her census debut in 1860 at the age of 5. The teenaged Louisa is at home in 1870… and then nowhere to be found. But in the early 20th century a Mrs. Ida Foster Baker started donating historic items in Kokomo, like her parents’ horse saddles to the Howard County Historical Society and a portrait of them to the Carnegie Library. Newspaper accounts from the day identified her as the youngest Foster daughter. Yet there was no “Ida” on any Foster family census records, and Louisa’s middle name was Eugenia.

Well, at some point, Louisa became Ida (not sure when or why), and with patience and perseverance, Ron and I used the 1930 census to confirm the two were the same person. We tracked her to Indianapolis, where that year she was listed as Mrs. William H.H. Clark (her second husband). We were sure we were right because of the entries in the father-mother birth-state column: Virginia (David) and New York (Elizabeth).

An identity mystery, solved by the census.