The Census is often overlooked as an information source. It’s much more than a list of the names of the people who lived at a particular location. It is particularly useful for people researching ancestors 1870-1930 as those censuses contain more information than earlier censuses. Also, if your ancestors were immigrants information on immigration was collected beginning in 1900.
For general census information, including the non population schedules, go to Dollarhide’s Census Book and read all about it. However, the easiest way these days is probably to go to Heritage Quest or Ancestry.com — possibly both available free through your local library — and view the census records. Be sure to check with your library — many provide Heritage Quest to you from your home computer.
So what can you learn from the census? How about where your ancestor was born [state or country] and the birthplaces of that ancestor’s parents? From 1900, how old precisely are they, including month and year of birth? When they arrived in the US? Were they naturalized? How long they were married on census day? How many children were born to the woman and how many are still living? Some questions were repeated in later censuses so you can compare. Earlier censuses provide less information. A complete list of the census questions is online at Census Finder. They also have downloads of census forms so you can do your own transcriptions. Remember, get the names of the neighbors too — they may be helpful at some point.
There are other useful pieces of information on the Census Finder site so take some time to browse. They have, for example, links to free information regarding censuses and other listings, often to GenWeb sites. They have done a lot of work for you. It’s a good place to start when doing research.
The Census Finder site is not limited to U.S. Censuses.
Using tools available to many free you can find and/or flesh out several generations of your genealogy in a few hours.