Gaston County Public Library

The United States Census for Genealogists: 1790-1940

History of the Census

The U. S. census has been taken every 10 years since the first one in 1790.

Some important notes:

1790 - 1840 Lists the name of the head of the family only.
1850 First census to list the names of all free persons.
1890 All but a few pages of this census were destroyed.
1940 The most recent census available..

The census taker (or enumerator) went house to house writing down the information he gathered on "population schedules", preprinted forms he was given to fill out. The population schedules were collected into books by county. Years later they were microfilmed and now they have been "digitized" and can be read on computers.

If you know what county your ancestor lived in, find out when a county was formed and from what other counties its territory was taken. For example, Gaston County was formed in 1846 from Lincoln County. Therefore you will have an 1850 census for Gaston County, but for the 1840 census you will have to look at the census for Lincoln County.

Each time the census has been taken, the enumerators have been given a different list of questions to ask. Many books on genealogical research describe what information you can expect to find in each census. Useful references are:

  • 317.3 HIN NCC. Your Guide to the Federal Census.
  • 929.1 SZU NCC. Finding Answers in U. S. Census Records.
  • Enumeration Forms provides copies of the questions asked in every US Census from 1850 - 2000.
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Finding Censuses

Internet Resources

You can find copies of the original handwritten schedules in these databases. Always look at the source.

  • Ancestry Library Edition includes an every name census index and the actual images of the census pages from 1790 to 1940. It is available at all library branches and is your best starting point for census research.
  • HeritageQuest provides the same images and indexes as Ancestry, but can be used at home with your library card through NC Live.
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  • also provides free access to many US and international censuses.
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Printed Resources

Printed ("transcribed") censuses for Lincoln and Gaston Counties, 1790 - 1890:

<1790 929.3756 N NCC. State Census of North Carolina, 1784 - 1787.
1790 929.3 DEP NCC. The 1790 Federal Census: Morgan District, Lincoln County - Rutherford County.
1800 929.3756 DEL NCC. The 1800 Federal Census of Lincoln County, North Carolina.
1810 929.3756 DEL NCC. The 1810 Federal Census of Lincoln County, North Carolina.
1820 929.3 FED NCC. Federal Census of North Carolina, 1820: Vol. 32 Lincoln County.
929.3 DEL NCC. 1820 Federal Census of Lincoln County, North Carolina.
1830 929.3 DEL NCC. The 1830 Federal Census of Lincoln County, North Carolina.
1840 929.3756 DEL NCC. The 1840 Federal Census of Lincoln County, North Carolina.
1850 929.3 COM NCC. The Complete 1850 Census of Gaston County, North Carolina.
929.3 FED NCC. The 1850 Federal Census of Gaston County, North Carolina.
929.3756 CRO NCC. 1850: Lincoln County Census.
929.3756 CAS NCC. The 1850 Federal Lincoln County, North Carolina Census.
1860 929.3756 EIG NCC. The 1860 Census of Gaston Co., North Carolina.
929.3756 DEL NCC. 1860: Lincoln County Census.
929.3756 DEL NCC. Lincoln County, N. C. 1860 Census. *Not the same census as above.
1870 929.3 BEL NCC. Population Schedule of the Ninth Census of the United States, 1870 Gaston County, North Carolina.
929.3756 DEL NCC. 1870 census of Lincoln County, North Carolina.
1880 929.3756 EIG NCC. 1880 Census Gaston County North Carolina.
929.3756 EIG NCC. 1880 Census Gaston County North Carolina.
929.3756 DEL NCC. The 1880 Federal Census of Lincoln County, North Carolina.
1890 929.3 GAS NCC. Gaston County's Surviving Eleventh Census of the United States: Population and Social Schedule, 1890, A very small portion of the Gaston County returns survived the destruction of the 1890 census.

For places other than Gaston and Lincoln Counties, the easiest way to find printed ("transcribed") censuses in this library is to search our Catalog by Keyword for the name of the place plus census.

For example, a keyword search for Cleveland census yields 6 entries for transcribed Cleveland County censuses.

Special Censuses

The Federal census takers sometimes had other schedules to fill out besides the population schedules. At different times these included "special" topics such as mortality, agriculture, manufacturing, "social" and slave schedules. For more information, see the National Archives page on Nonpopulation Census Records.
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Some things you should know:

  • The data from these censuses is NOT included in the population schedules.
    • You can find this special information on separate schedules, many of which are available in Ancestry Library Edition.
    • United States Census (Mortality Schedule), 1850 is at
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  • The slave schedules do NOT include the names of the slaves. They list the name of the slave owner and give details on the number of slaves owned by age and sex.
  • There is a surviving special census from 1890 of Union veterans. In a few places the enumerator also listed Confederate veterans.

Soundex Indexes

The Soundex is a coded surname (last name) index based on the way a surname sounds rather than the way it is spelled.

  • The Soundex Indexing System from the National Archives provides more information.
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  • To use the Soundex indexes, you convert the surname to a code.
  • Ancestry Library Edition and some other databases include the option to search by Soundex variations of a name.

Missing Persons?

What if you can't find a person through the indexes? Since census takers and indexers do make mistakes, sometimes it is still best to look through a census schedule, page by page.

Before you start reading the census, do everything you can to narrow down where a person lived within a county or large city.

City Directories

Start with city directories. The Gastonia Main Library has city directories for communities in Gaston County.
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Vital Records

You can also try looking for addresses in old family letters or other primary sources such as death certificates. See the "Vital Records" sections of our guides to Finding Gaston County Ancestors and Finding Lincoln County Ancestors.
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Enumeration Districts

Beginning in 1880, when the census was taken each county was divided into "enumeration districts" (EDs). Each census year had different EDs.

1930 Enumeration Districts

  • The National Archives has a complete list of 1930 Enumeration District descriptions along with other useful tips on using this census.
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  • At the Gastonia Main Library we have 2 rolls of microfilm containing all of the 1930 enumeration descriptions for North Carolina, North Dakota, South Carolina, South Dakota and Tennessee.

1940 Enumeration Districts

Paper copies of the Enumeration District descriptions are at all libraries in our county.

  • Gaston County Enumeration Districts.
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  • Lincoln County Enumeration Districts.
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