This is the first article in a series on census records for Rhode Island.
Many researchers use the population schedules, but are unaware of other types of
census materials that exist, such as special schedules (agricultural,
manufacturing, mortality, and veterans), state censuses, and city and town
census reports. This column focuses on the federal census material that exists
for Rhode Island (both population and special schedules). There is a tremendous
amount of information in census records if you know what’s available and how to
Federal censuses began in 1790 and have been taken every ten years since
then. Since the United States government only releases census schedules
seventy-two years after they were created, this means that census material from
1790 through 1930 is currently available. The next release (1940) won’t be
released until 2012. To better understand the federal census, researchers should
consult Loretto Szucs’ advice in the chapter “Research in Census Records” from
The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy, Revised Edition
(Salt Lake City, Ancestry, 1997, pp103-46) and Kathleen W. Hinckley’s Your Guide to the Federal Census (Betterway, 2002).
Before you start using the federal census there are things that you need to
know about what information was enumerated and when. Hinckley neatly outlines
the basic tools of using the census for genealogical research in her book with
charts and well-organized chapters. Researchers should be aware of the following
basic “facts” of using the federal census as presented in Hinckley’s book:
Every researcher should keep in mind the following tip from Hinckley —
“there are always exceptions.” Census enumerators often recorded additional
information that they found interesting. By the same token, they sometimes
neglected to record information that should be in the census.
Where to Find the Census
For most enumerations in the nineteenth century there were multiple schedules
treating a variety of economic and social matters, but many have been destroyed.
Surviving originals are widely scattered. The Rhode Island State Archives
(RISA), the Rhode Island Historical Society Library (RIHS) and the National Archives have a mix of
originals, duplicate copies, and microfilm. The National Archives has microfilms
of the population census for Rhode Island. Ancestry.com and Genealogy.com have digitized versions of the census available
online to subscribers of their databases.
The Rhode Island State
Archives337 Westminster St., Providence, RI 02903(401)
Historical Society Library 121 Hope St., Providence, RI 02906(401)
What Exists: Population Schedules
The population schedule is what most people think of as “the census.” The
good news is that all years have been microfilmed by the National Archives and
widely distributed. The NEHGS Library has microfilms for all New England states
from 1790 to 1880 and 1900 to 1930. The census of 1890 for Rhode Island, with
the exception of the veterans’ schedules, was destroyed in a fire.
The 1790 census is available in printed form as well in Bureau of the Census,
Heads of Families at the First Census of the United States Taken in the Year
1790: Rhode Island (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1908)
Surviving Rhode Island population schedules are indexed, with the exception
of 1910 and 1930. Most indexes from 1790 to 1870 have been commercially
produced and advertised extensively. For the 1880, 1900, and 1920 Rhode Island
returns, phonetic indexes (called Soundex) were federally prepared and have been
widely disseminated on microfilm by the National Archives.
The unindexed census presents special challenges for researchers, especially
when trying to locate an individual in an urban setting. There are tools that
make that process easier. For instance, city directories cite street addresses
and the Census Bureau’s separately filmed Descriptions of Census Enumeration
Districts, 1830–1890 and 1910–1950 (National Archives micropublication
T1224) helps identify the correct enumeration district. The corresponding census
enumeration district maps at the National Archives and those created by the
Rhode Island Historical Society for 1910 also help. Manuscript maps held by the
National Archives include six Rhode Island cities: Central Falls, Cranston,
Newport, Pawtucket, Providence, and Woonsocket. Once a street address is known
in these cities, an order for the corresponding map can be addressed
toCartographic and Architectural Branch (NNSC)National Archives at
College Park8601 Adelphi Road, College Park, MD 20740-6001. A
helpful discussion of these tools and examples of how to use them appears in the
spring 1993 issue of Prologue, the quarterly of the National Archives,
which is available in the government documents section of many libraries.
The following schedules can be found at either the Rhode Island State
Archives (RISA) or the National Archives.
Agricultural Schedules 1850–80 (RISA) These enumerate farms with
an annual produce of at least $100 (1850–60) or $500 (1870–80) giving names of
owner (or tenant), acreage, and both type and quantity of livestock and
agricultural production. Rhode Island’s agricultural manufacturing and
mortality schedules are not among those microfilmed by the National Archives.
Manufacturing Schedules: 1810, 1820 (National Archives); 1850–60, 1880
(RISA) Qualifications for inclusion varied across time. Only two pages of
the 1810 Rhode Island schedule survive. These pages represent Kent County and
have not been microfilmed (NARA houses them with materials from Record Group 29,
Bureau of the Census). For 1850 to 1870, the schedules include fishing,
mercantile, and mining operations that grossed at least $500 per year. The 1880
schedule focused on general industry.
Mortality Schedules: 1850–1880 (RISA) Theoretically, the mortality
schedules in these census years list all individuals who died within twelve
months prior to the office census date (June 1), giving such personal data as
name, age, birthplace, race, and cause of death. In reality, the returns are far
from complete but still invaluable.
Veterans’ Schedules: 1890 (National Archives). Union veterans and
their widows appear on a special schedule that includes name; veteran’s rank,
company, and regiment or vessel; dates of enlistment and discharge; length of
service; post office address; and disabilities. These are the only known
surviving schedules for Rhode Island in 1890. There is an index to this census
Remember to keep good records of the census pages you locate. Print out a
copy of the page so that you can refer to it again in the future or use a
special pre-printed form for transcribing information. In the rush to find your
next ancestor in the census, you might overlook a vital clue offered by a census
document. Transcribing full information and making copies enables you to consult
the pages for additional material when you reach a research roadblock.
So now that you are aware of the wide range of censuses available to track
down those Rhode Island ancestors, you can use them to expand what you know
about those individuals. You are sure to find data that you didn’t know, such as
occupations, number of marriages, and previously unknown children.