Does A Genealogist Want A Citizenship Question On Any Questionnaire? What Do You Think?

[How dare politicians come in and try to steal away our beloved genealogy. Of course everyone in our wondrous country should be able to wear – I am from button – on an ancestry day and be safe and feel proud of each and every place that makes up this amazing country.]

See below for a link to a page with many of the census questions through the years all in one place.

See Google Translate to have any language they offer. This is mostly an American story; please share your stories about a census from anywhere, if you like.

For this current political thing, really, you would think he was asking people if they believed in angels or aliens or both. When has the citizenship question NOT been on the census (short form) OR at least on the American Community Survey (long form)? That is the question for a genealogist (as well as what other questions have been dropped and why).

The Hill says, “…The citizenship question recurred multiple times from 1820 to 1890. And from 1890 to 1950, it appeared on every census. Since then, it has been included on every long-form census questionnaire from 1970 to 2000. To this day, the question is still asked on the American Community Survey, an annual supplement to the decennial census. The citizenship question is not a new concept; it is the restoration of common sense…”


Let’s see what I can pull up to illustrate this — right, wrong or indifferent. I will pull up some forms for our fun. There are many places that have the blank census forms showing exactly what each one asked, such as familysearch or cyndislist. See below for links.

But what do we genealogists all know and love and hate about the census? And why, we wonder, don’t all folks enjoy viewing the census records of of their ancestors, especially since so many of the United States records can be had for free?

The hateful thing for us is that it is not an official record. It is called a secondary source, and for good reason: Countless people lied. And sometimes maybe they took an innocent guess. Maybe the census takers suggested they take a guess so they could fill in the box. With some census-takers, you can see the handwriting begin to tire and become even scribbly. They got  tired, or were maybe in their cups.

As a genealogist I would not only want citizenship questions, but I would add…

are you dual citizens of what countries?

What countries have you visited where there will be records?

Where will your descendants find records for you and for what years?

What repositories hold your DNA samples?

Will you authorize the use of your DNA for your descendants in perpetuity?

– tick here!

 So what have we had in the past?

Right off the bat, the US 1890 census is lost. We do know what questions it asked, but all the answers appear to have gone the way of destroyed records. See below for the form, and does it ask the magic question of citizenship? This precious 1890 census is sorely missed, leaving genealogists with this terrible gap in the record. Today, voting records and city directories and other records are used as substitutes for the 1890 US census.

I especially love the US 1880 census: Not only was everybody in the house named, but folks were asked where they were born and where their parents were born. This is a gold mine for genealogy, and for finding clues on where to look for Mamma and Papa.


The 1880 census began on 1 June 1880 for the general population of the United States. The enumeration was to be completed within thirty days, or two weeks for communities with populations of 10,000 or fewer. Regardless of when an individual was contacted, all responses were to reflect the status of the individual as of 1 June 1880, the official Census Day.

Thirty-eight states (including the recently admitted Colorado) were enumerated in the 1880 census, along with eight territories: Arizona, Dakota, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. Non-organized Alaska was also enumerated, but the “Indian Territory” (now Oklahoma) was not enumerated for non-Indians.

Enumerators (census takers) collected the following information for each household:

  • Address (name of the street; house number)
  • Occupant (name of each person and their relationship to head of family)
  • Personal (sex, race, age, marital status, ability to read and write, birthplace, and birthplace of parents)
  • Occupation (trade or profession; number of months unemployed)
  • Health (whether blind, deaf and dumb, crippled, maimed, idiotic, insane, bedridden, or otherwise disabled)

Unique Feature

The 1880 census was the first to identify an individual’s relationship to the head of household. In addition, the 1880 census was the first to identify the state, county, and other subdivisions; the name of the street and house number for urban households. It also recorded illness or disability at the time the census was taken; marital status; number of months unemployed during the year; and the state or country of birth of every individual’s father and mother…”

The 1881 census in Canada

…almost caused a divorce when we first started searching online. Grandfather Wilson’s  parents and an unknown sister were found and were said to be Irish. No way! Must be the wrong family. Everyone knew our people came from Scotland!

Three years I fought this battle with Dai and his cousins — JNE Wilson and his sister Ginnie. Well, turned out this is Great Grandfather Thomas:

Name: Thos. D. Wilson
Gender: Male
Marital status: Married
Age: 31
Birth Year: 1850
Birthplace: Ontario
Religion: Church of England
Nationality: Irish
Occupation: Machinist
Province: Ontario
District Number: 134
District: Toronto City
Sub-District Number: H
Subdistrict: St Patricks Ward
Division: 3

Although Thos D, as we lovingly call him, was born in Ontario, you see his Nationality is listed as Irish.

The amazing info at also allows you to know what questions were asked and how. And for each census they have, you can click and read still more. Here is more about the 1881 Canadian census:

Enumerator Instructions:

The 1881 Census was begun on 4 April 1881 and was to enumerate every individual in the country. Answers to census questions were to reflect the individual’s status as of April 4th, regardless of the day the enumeration actually took place. However, individuals who were absent on the day of enumeration were still to be counted in the place where they usually lived.

The head of household was to be enumerated first, followed by other members of the household. The following questions were asked by enumerators:

  • Number of family, household, or institution in order of visitation
  • Name of each person in family or household on 4 April 1881
  • Sex (M = Male; F = Female)
  • Age
  • Born within the last twelve months
  • Country or province of birth
  • Religion
  • Origin (Ethnic Background) – “Indian” was used for people of Native descent
  • Profession, occupation, or trade
  • Married or Widowed
  • Going to school
  • Whether deaf and dumb, blind, or of an unsound mind


I also love the 1900 US census – this one asks for the month a person was born. Not just the year, but a birthday month, which is so cool because there were no civil birth records in some places before that time. (Early in the country there were some church records, but ole Tommy Jefferson wanted complete separation of church and state. So the mandatory recording of birth records in America’s early Episcopal churches was stopped.)

The 1900 census, like many others, asked about citizenship.

“…Enumerators of the 1900 census were instructed to record the names of every person in the household. Enumerators were asked to include the following categories in the census: name; address; relationship to the head of household; color or race; sex; month and year of birth; age at last birthday; marital status; number of years married; the total number of children born of the mother; the number of those children living; places of birth of each individual and the parents of each individual; if the individual was foreign born, the year of immigration and the number of years in the United States; the citizenship status of foreign-born individuals over age twenty-one; occupation; whether the person could read, write, and speak English; whether the home was owned or rented; whether the home was on a farm; and whether the home was mortgaged. The categories allowed Congress to determine persons residing in the United States for collection of taxes and the appropriation of seats in the House of Representatives…”


Anyone can look up the questions to decide whether the census questions are intrusive or not.

And many of the census records are online and free, so you can go and see how your ancestors answered this question of citizenship!

Census Questions, When Wasn’t “It” Asked?




One thought on “Does A Genealogist Want A Citizenship Question On Any Questionnaire? What Do You Think?

  1. Pingback: “The” Census Question, When Wasn’t “It” Asked? | Cherie Lynn's Herstory

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s