Celebrating Census Day: Uncover Your Family’s Story through Census Records

April 1 is Census Day.

The United States 2020 Census kicked off this year and will conclude when the census bureau delivers a final report to the President by December. The US government has conducted the census every 10 years since 1790 in order to accurately count the US population, apportion representation in Congress and inform funding for citizen services.

For genealogists, census records represent a vital information source for family history research. They provide valuable details on our ancestors and if examined over time can reveal a family’s story over many generations. Here are examples of family history I have uncovered through census records.

1790. America’s First Census. My probable sixth great grandfather Cannon Cumbo is counted in the 1790 census as head of an “all other free” household of 5 in Northampton County, North Carolina. The total US population in the first census year was counted to be approximately 4,000,000. Household inhabitants were categorized as “free white” (80% of the population), “enslaved” (18%) and “all other free” (2%) defined as non-white (of African or Native American ancestry) and not enslaved. I trace Cannon’s ancestry back to Emanuell Cumbo, “Negro,” who was granted 50 acres in James City County, Virginia on 18 April 1667.

Cluster analysis of Northampton County Cumbos helped me to identify Cannon Cumbo listed in 1790 Census for Northampton NC in as my probable 6th great grandfather.

1860. Slavery. My third great grandfather Henry Johnson, born enslaved, is likely in the 1860 US Census Slave Schedule for Catawba County, North Carolina. Enslaved persons recorded in these schedules were usually not named, but rather numbered under the slave holder’s name. Based on extensive genealogical and DNA research I identify his owner and father as John Smyre Jr., son of German immigrants to North Carolina. By 1860, according to the slave schedule, John Smyer Jr owns only one enslaved person, a male in the same age range as Henry. Post-emancipation Henry migrates to Long Creek Township (now Huntersville on the outskirts of Charlotte) Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. His descendants remained there including my grandfather who was born in Charlotte.

According to this 1860 slave census record, John Smyer Jr owns only one enslaved person, a male in the same age range as my third great grandfather Henry Johnston.

1870. Emancipation. My great-great grandfather Gus Kerns was born enslaved around 1861 likely in Mecklenburg County, NC. I spent years searching for him in the 1870 census, the first in which formerly enslaved persons appear. Turns out I couldn’t find him because in 1870 he went by Gus Graham. Perhaps Graham was the name of his last owner. By 1880 he’d claimed the name Gus Kerns. By 1900 he’d given himself a new first name as well — James. He died James Augustus “Gus” Kerns in 1939. At some point an “a” was added in the spelling of our last name. It now lives on with me.

1870 Census record for my great-great grandfather Gus [Graham] Kerns. He is living in a post-emancipation household so his biological connection to the other household members is not clear. His marriage and death certificate both list his parents as unknown.

1940. Education and Service. My great grandmother Georgia Joyner is counted in the 1940 census as a widowed mother of four, living the house she owned in Nansemond (now Suffolk), Virginia. Her husband James had died five years prior, leaving her to run the country store they’d opened together. Two daughters, my grandmother Athalia and my grand aunt Juanita are listed as college students. Her two younger children are listed as elementary school students. All of her daughters would go on to graduate from Virginia State College for Negroes, now Virginia State University, and her son would enjoy a long career of service to our country in the military.

1940 Nansemond County (now Suffolk) Census Record for the household of my great grandmother Georgia Joyner.

This year marks the first time that people can respond to the census online. We recently submitted ours as a family. My future great grandson or granddaughter with an innate passion for genealogy will be thanking me in the year 2100.

Complete your census today online and be counted.

1790 US Population Map

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