Lesson: Census

Lesson: Census


Students will understand what a federal census is; be able to find them online and “read” them both for facts and possible assumptions.



  • Tricking the Tallyman by Jacqueline Davies (Knopf, 2009)
  • Computer with internet hookup, and access to Heritage Quest (free user name and password available through many libraries) or Ancestry.com (free short-term subscriptions available for school use)
  • Blank census forms, available from Genealogy for Kids book, or can be downloaded for free from Family Tree magazine’s website http://www.familytreemagazine.com/info/censusforms, and many other websites…just google “free blank census forms.”








Head of Household

Marital status








Given name


Reading the picture book Tricking the Tallyman as a read aloud with the class will be a wonderful introduction to understanding what a census is. As the author Jacqueline Davies says on her website (jacquelinedavies.net):

Are kids interested in learning about the very first American census? Probably not. Do young readers clamor for stories set in the very, very olden days of the late 18th century? Uh, not really. Okay, but do they like nutty cat-and-mouse trickery, wacky slapstick, and animals disguised as people? You bet! So let them have all that, and if they end up learning a thing or two about our country, its history, and the ways our government works, shhh . . . we won’t tell! Tricking the Tallyman accomplishes the tricky task of showing kids the way the 1790 census was tabulated (or tallied) and how the country’s new citizens came to understand (after much misunderstanding) how it worked to help them and the country.



  1. Checking out the 1790  Tunbridge, VT census that the book is written about:

To connect your class with actual completed census forms use either the Heritage Quest or Ancestry.com options (see Materials, above) with students either individually or in small groups connected with a computer screen, or the whole class watching a projected screen. Whatever the setup, your class will be viewing actual census pages online.


To view the census the book talks about, find the 1790 Tunbridge, Vermont census results (on Heritage Quest, this would be found by selecting Census Records/Browse/1790/Vermont/Orange County/Tunbridge. This is a great example: the town’s census is covered on only 4 pages of paper taking up only 2 screens.


Once you have those pages, ask the students what they notice. Here are some details that would be fun to discuss with the students:

  • How easy is it to read the handwriting of the enumerator? Have students take turns trying to read the names the enumerator wrote. Sometimes it is easier to try to decipher letter by letter. Have students try changing the image from positive to negative, and try changing the “zoom” magnification to see if that can help decipher letters.
  • Note the fancy scroll work on some of the letters. Notice what a special job he did at the top of each page writing the name of the town—and how he ran out of room on page 2 and had to finish “Tunbridge” with smaller lettering.
  • Note given names that are still familiar today and others that are unusual.
  • Point out that it was not until 1850 that individuals in the family (other than the “head of household” were listed by name. This can certainly lead to interesting conversation!
  • Point out that slavery in Vermont was not allowed, but the column that the federal government included for the tallyman to record the number of slaves is included on the form. (See “Author’s note” at the end of Tricking the Tallyman for an explanation of how women, slaves and Native Americans were counted.)
  • This tallyman has every family listed in alphabetical order, which means he must have made his initial notes on other pieces of paper and then recopied them on his handmade chart in alphabetical order.
  • The books lists the total number of people living in Tunbridge in 1890 as 487…does that agree with the actual census.
  • What about the surnames used in the book: Pepper, Devotion, Swindel, Gripe and Thickpenny…were those actual names in Tunbridge in 1890.
  • The author named the census taker Phineas Bump. Was that the actual census taker’s name? (I could not find any census taker’s name on the actual pages…)


  1. More info on census taking to share with students:
  • Census taken every 10 years
  • Today, most homes get their census by mail, fill it out by and return it back by mail, though some households are still visited by a real person, today called an enumerator.
  • The questions that the census taker asked varied from year to year. (Consider each student/a small group of students a different blank form and having a discussion about what kinds of questions were asked in that particular year.
  • The census is a wonderful tool for genealogists. Have students brainstorm why. That said, it is also true that census takers sometimes made errors, missed people, wrote sloppily, took second-hand information, all which means sometimes the information is not accurate. Students may find information that doesn’t match other information they find; that is all part of being a history detective!
  • The census information that is gathered is kept secret for 72 years. For example, in 2012, the information from the 1940 census will be released for the first time. (The only exceptions are if you are a family member, you may request to see the information about your relative only.)
  • 99% of the 1890 census was destroyed in a fire in 1921. Only information from Alabama, Washington DC and Georgia was saved.
  • Sometimes nicknames were recorded in one census year and other years recorded formal names, so be on the lookout!
  • Sometimes the census taker recorded people in the same order as they lived, so you can figure out who were neighbors to whom, and, sometimes, if you have an old map with family names on it, you might be able to figure out where they lived. Beginning in 1900, exact addresses were recorded.
  • Before census records were available online, people had to either go to a library that had them on microfilm, or travel to one place in each state where copies might be stored, or go to Washington, DC.


  1. Learning about old handwriting, spelling and writing conventions: (You may prefer to cover these points as you do activity 4, so the students have census examples in front of them.)
  • As exciting as it is to see someone’s handwriting from so many years ago, it can have its challenges to decipher. Our 1790 Tunbridge census taker was actually a very careful writer! He didn’t use any abbreviations of names (page ___ in Underfoot has an excellent primer on deciphering old handwriting conventions and abbreviations and contractions.)
  • People spelled things the way they sounded; there was no right way to spell words, no spelling “rules” until after 1800, and they were not commonly used until after the Civil War time.  Natalie shared that her sister was researching one of their relatives, Sarah Witcher (whom she wrote about in The Bear that Heard Crying), and found her name written in records more than 23 different ways!
  • Ditto marks are often used in census records and will need to be explained.
  • Explain to students that they may run across a funny looking letter—often called the old style s—that looks like an “f”, “ff”, “pp”, “fs” or backwards “s”,  and realize it is representing “ss.”


  1. Selecting a class research project person:

When piloting our Keepers program, our teaching team decided that we wanted the kids to be researching the same person when they had their first hands-on experiences with primary and secondary sources. That way we could model the research, and later, when they researched their own family story, they would be more comfortable and independent.


We tossed around ideas of who this “class research person” could be. We wanted it to be someone who had lived in our town. Ideally, we wanted it to be someone who was not already well known in the town, so that the students would feel they were doing “real work” and truly contributing to their town’s knowledge. Of the names we discussed, Amanda Colburn Farnham Felch rose to the top. Natalie had heard her mentioned on public radio as a Civil War nurse who had been born in Glover, yet, when she contacted the Glover Historical Society to find out more about her, she learned her name was unknown in Glover history—there was absolutely nothing about her in the at all in the Glover history book, or at the Glover Historical Society museum. Natalie was interested in including Amanda in an upcoming book, and the Historical Society was interested in including her story in their exhibit of Civil War stories at the state history fair six months away. Amanda seemed a perfect person to use for our class research.


We explained to the students that they would be helping Natalie research, and that she would acknowledge them in the book.  We also explained that they would be helping the historical society research their exhibit, and would have the opportunity to help present the exhibit at the state exposition and at two local venues where the historical society traditionally has an exhibit, the town’s annual fair, Glover Day, and the county historical society’s annual fair, Old Stone House Day. Selecting a person to research that was going to project that is real work.


You might prefer that rather than have the adults decide who the class will research, students could brainstorm ideas and then select one. Your local historians may be able to suggest names of people in town they wish they knew more about.


  1. Searching the census for your class research project:
  • Assign census years so students either have their own census year to research (if they each have their own computer to use) or are working in small groups (if sharing).Begin with the first census that the person could have been counted in, or maybe even one previous to see if where the family was before the person’s birth.
  • Do one year together as a class so they will know how to use the “search” feature. Discuss what name they should put in the search box.
  • Let them try it out! The excited “I found her!” shouts will make all the time you have spent preparing worthwhile!
  • Have students notice (1850 and on) ages, gender, and family relationships, and make hypotheses about how people are related, why two families might be in the same house, or living as neighbors. We found our students made some very sophisticated hunches using the data they were looking at.
  • There will be many teachable moments: finding others with the same name don’t seem to be the “right” or “our” Amanda; have students justify why they do or do not think this is the right person.  Students will come to brick walls and dead ends—let them know that is common in genealogy; what could they try instead? One student who was not following directions went ahead and decided to google the name and found all kinds of great information! Demonstrate how switching to “Browse” and going to your town may turn up something. Point out that as children or mothers were not listed by name until 1850, using only the last name to search will be helpful. If one student is getting frustrated, they can team with another student who is having more success.
  • Ask students to record any info they find in his or her Storykeepers notebook, and when everyone has searched their census year, record all the info together on the board, on a big piece of paper, or on the computer using a timeline software, such as Timeliner or a graphic organizer/notetaker software program, like Inspiration.
  • Remind students that later after we have researched Amanda using other primary sources, they will be selecting one of their family stories to research and will be able to research using the census again.



  • Find out whom in your town has worked for the census in past years—usually they employ workers during the census who actually go out to verify address of families the census is not sure about, and to follow up with households who do not mail back in a census. Invite them in to talk with the class. Sometimes they are still met with skepticism or hostility as Phineas Bump was; other times they are welcomed very warmly! You may find a census worker very happy to talk about their experiences and still maintain confidentiality.
  • Student who are really interested in old handwriting may enjoy Reading Early American Handwriting, by Kip Sperry (Genealogical Publishing Co, Inc, 1998).