While the use of federal population schedules is common practice to most
genealogists, state and local census materials are often neglected. This is
probably due to the fact that many researchers aren’t aware of the wealth of
census documents that exist on the state or city level.
State CensusRhode Island state
censuses were taken at ten-year intervals between 1865 and 1935, although the
1895 returns are missing. The Rhode Island State Archives (337 Westminster St.,
Providence, RI 02903) has microfilm copies of all the state material mentioned
here. If you need additional information about their holdings, contact archivist
Ken Carlson at (401) 222-2353. The Rhode Island Historical Society has
microfilms of the 1865, 1875, and 1885 censuses.
State censuses, like those on the federal level, were taken
at ten-year intervals. The first Rhode Island state census was taken in 1865 and
the last in 1935. The census of 1895 is missing. Some of these censuses contain
only basic information (name, birthplace, occupation, etc) and others are more
detailed. I have listed the characteristics of each of the Rhode Island state
1865: An every name index makes this census easy
to use. It includes: “name of every person, (man, woman or child), whose usual
place of abode was in the family on the first day of June, 1865,” including
those absent due to service in the Army or Navy. Also listed is the person’s
age, occupation, birthplace (name of Rhode Island town or if elsewhere just the
state), and whether he or she was a naturalized voter. No relationship is
mentioned for the members of a household. If you are trying to verify military
service, this is the census to consult. One of the columns identifies the branch
of the service the individual served in (Army or Navy) or the branch in which
they were currently enlisted.
1875: Several years ago, a dedicated genealogist
named Al Eastwood indexed this census. While Eastwood is no longer with us, his
legacy lives on in the card index he created, which currently resides at the
Rhode Island State Archives. The basic information appears in this census such
as name, age, and occupation. This time the relationship between the members of
a household was recorded.
1885: Patience is needed to use this census. It is
arranged loosely by town, males and females are separated, and nothing is
indexed. All the males who share the first letter of a surname are grouped
together, followed by all the females according to town. Each family is
designated a number so it is possible to recreate households by that number. The
number of individuals living in the household is beside the family number. While
the family number helps you recreate the household, it can be difficult to find
a member of the household that had a different surname without scanning the
whole roll. Al Eastwood indexed Bristol County, but died before completing the
rest. The index is at the Rhode Island State Archives. This census contains the
same categories as the 1875 census, but includes more data on voter status —
real estate, personal, or registered.
1905:The enumerators used cards instead of books
to record the data for the most informative of the Rhode Island state censuses.
Females were asked a few additional questions pertaining to children.
Male cards contain: name, residence (street and number),
town, county, voting district, ward, relation to head of family, color or race,
age, date of birth (sometimes including month, day, and year), place of birth,
native or foreign born, conjugal condition, year of immigration to the U.S.,
number of years in U.S., number of years resident in Rhode Island, number of
months resident during census year in town (or city) in which now living, place
of birth of father, place of birth of mother, naturalization, voter (real
estate, personal, or registered), able to read/write, occupation (thirteen years
old and up), months unemployed during year, whether a Union soldier, sailor, or
marine during the Civil or Spanish American wars (state which war), if they
receive a pension, and religion (Roman Catholic, Protestant, or Jew). If
Protestant, identify denomination.
Female cards differ by asking if the individual was a mother,
and if so, how many children and how many were still living; and whether she was
the widow of a Union soldier, sailor, or Marine during the Civil or Spanish
American War, and if she received a pension.
1915: Arranged by town, but there is no index.
There are finding aids at the Rhode Island State Archives to assist researchers
with using this census. It contains name, address, relationship to head of
family, personal description (sex, color or race, age at last birthday),
nativity (of person and parents), citizenship, and occupation.
1925:Only the basic data was recorded for this
census — name, birthplace, occupation, citizenship, and the relationship between
members of the household. While there is no index, the Rhode Island State
Archives has a finding aid available.
1935: All information for this census was
recorded on punch cards and arranged by town. Sometimes the specific birth date
and place is mentioned. Rather than just listing occupation, the enumerators
also wrote down the name of the employer. See my earlier article on finding
employment records for assistance in locating additional information based on
that clue. The name of the school was recorded for students. If you want to
know if your ancestor ever had the measles, this is just one of the many small
facts recorded in this census.
Unfortunately, Rhode Island didn’t continue with state
censuses after 1935. Legislation was introduced to the General Assembly in 1945
to produce a census, but it was never done.
Locality Specific Census
There are three known local enumerations for Providence
—1791, 1825, and 1845 (only half of the second ward). All are available on
microfilm at the Rhode Island Historical Society. For additional information on
the types of material in that repository consult their newly redesigned website, which contains a list of
manuscript finding aids as well as research help for genealogists.
1791: Taken in the year following the first
federal census, this local return was lost until Charles B. Allen found it in
his father’s papers and gave it to the Providence Journal in 1868. It was
later given to the Rhode Island Historical Society. According to the Society it
“seems to be arranged in order of visitation, and is divided into north, south,
and west parts of town. It lists the names of Heads of Families, and counts for
each household of Number of Dwelling Houses, Free White Males over and under 16,
Free White Females, All Other Free Persons, and Slaves.”
1825:Census taker Noah Smith, Jr. counted the
heads of families by breaking the enumeration down into columns: white males and
white females under 18, 18 to 45, 45 to 75, and over 75 as well as “coloured
males” and “coloured females” under 18, 18 to 50, and over 50. There is also
information on the Friends Boarding School, Brown University, the Alms House,
and the jail.
1845:Only a section of the east side of the city
was recorded in 1845. Once again it is just heads of families with counts for
each category. Under male and female there is more specific data than earlier
censuses: under 5, 5 to 10, 10 to 15, 15 to 20, 20 to 30, 30 to 40, 40 to 50, 50
to 60, 70 to 80, 80to 90, 90 to 100 and over 100. The small age ranges means
that genealogists can use this information to add to what is known about their
family. Persons of color were counted under different categories: under 10, 24to
36, 36 to 55, 55 to 100, and over 100. There is no category for the age range
10 to 23. According to the Rhode Island Historical Society, this census also
counted the insane and students. In several instances, notes were added about
certain household’s ethnicity or location. A list of all individuals aged over
70 appears in the volume.
The following three censuses are only available in the
Manuscript Department at the Rhode Island Historical Society.
Persons Liable for Military Duty, 1873
There are nineteen notebooks that list men eligible for
military service, their ages, and their addresses.
Military Census of Providence, 1881
This list of men between the ages 18 and 45 is arranged by
the first letter of the surname in each ward.
Military Census of Providence, 1882
Contains the same data as the Military Census of 1881.
Anyone looking for information on relatives living in Rhode
Island or its capital city of Providence should visit the Rhode Island State
Archives to examine the state census records or the Rhode Island Historical
Society for the Providence census. The additional material found in these
records could add individuals to your family tree, confirm your ancestor moved
in the years between censuses, or provide evidence of citizenship or military