Top 10 Family History Interview Questions

The Top 10 Family History Questions to Ask Your Relatives

Episode 55 Show Notes & Video

Probably the thing I hear most from my viewers and podcast listeners is that they regret not having interviewed their parents, grandparents and other older relatives when they had the chance.

However, it’s never to late to start interviewing relatives about family history. Even if you’re one of the oldest in your family, you have siblings and cousins who have stories to tell.

Every person in your extended family is walking around with a piece of your history in their head. Their memories are unique. No one else knows what they know. And all those memories from all of those relatives piece together like a puzzle to fit into your personal story…and your family’s story…and your kids and your grandkids stories. This means you have a pretty important job to do. You need to capture these stories not just for you, but for all the generations to come.

Use my 10 family history questions to kick off the conversation. Then, move quickly, yet sensitively, into the memories you want to hear about. And memories is the key word here. You want to tap into memories, not just “answers.” That’s why these questions are geared to help your relative go back in time, and provide thoughtful memories while avoiding simply answering yes or no.

These family history questions are also designed to fill in your relative’s backstory, and flush out how it fits into your story. The goal is to open up some new opportunities for learning more about the family’s history.

One important thing to keep in mind is that not everyone has the same energy level and enthusiasm for an interview like this. So don’t try to cover too much in one sitting. With that in mind, we’re going to focus on the top 10 questions that will give you a lot to work with after the interview. You’ll be able to take what you learn and head out for exciting new research that adds color and interest to your family history.

Great questions can uncover great stories, so in the Live YouTube Premiere of Elevenses with Lisa episode 55 I’m going to share with you:
  • my top 10 family history interview questions
  • my Pro Tip for getting an exceptional interview
  • a Bonus Idea that will add value to your family history TODAY.

Now’s the Time to Interview Your Relatives

Probably the thing I hear most from my viewers and podcast listeners is that they regret not having interviewed their parents, grandparents and other older relatives when they had the chance.

However, it’s never to late to start interviewing relatives about family history. Even if you’re one of the oldest in your family, you have siblings and cousins who have stories to tell.

Every person in your extended family is walking around with a piece of your history in their head. Their memories are unique. No one else knows what they know. And all those memories from all of those relatives piece together like a puzzle to fit into your personal story…and your family’s story…and your kids and your grandkids stories. This means you have a pretty important job to do. You need to capture these stories not just for you, but for all the generations to come.

Use my 10 family history questions to kick off the conversation. Then, move quickly, yet sensitively, into the memories you want to hear about. And memories is the key word here. You want to tap into memories, not just “answers.” That’s why these questions are geared to help your relative go back in time, and provide thoughtful memories while avoiding simply answering yes or no.

These family history questions are also designed to fill in your relative’s backstory, and flush out how it fits into your story. The goal is to open up some new opportunities for learning more about the family’s history.

One important thing to keep in mind is that not everyone has the same energy level and enthusiasm for an interview like this. So don’t try to cover too much in one sitting. With that in mind, we’re going to focus on the top 10 questions that will give you a lot to work with after the interview. You’ll be able to take what you learn and head out for exciting new research that adds color and interest to your family history.

Ice Breaker Questions for a Family History Interview

Both of you might be just a little nervous about how the conversation will go. So, just like kicking off a great party, you might need a few good icebreakers.

The first way to break the ice is just let them know how appreciative you are, with something like: “I’m so happy we’re making time for this, and I want to thank you for agreeing to talk with me and share your memories.”  Everyone like to feel appreciated, and you’ve already put that word “memories” out there instead of just “answers.”

Here are a few ice breaker questions you could use. The first two help you reveal how they are feeling about participating in the interview.

Icebreaker Question #1:
Were you surprised that I asked you to sit down for this interview?

Icebreaker Question #2:
Were you looking forward to sitting down for this interview today?

These questions might help uncover any hidden hesitancy on the part of your relative, and help you determine if a little more reassurance is in order. They may have questions about how you are going to use the information they share and where it might be shared. This is your chance to work out the details and make sure you are both on the same page.

Icebreaker Question #3:
Have you done an interview like this before with anyone else in the family?

It’s very possible that you aren’t the first person to interview them. If that’s the case, this is your opportunity to find out who else has been working on family interviews. There may be an opportunity to follow up with the other interviewer and compare findings.

These next two are just for fun:

Icebreaker Question #4:
If you had a whole day with no demands or responsibilities, how would you spend it?

Icebreaker Question #5:
What’s the coolest thing about you in your opinion?

Chances are that the answers to these icebreaker questions may elicit a few laughs getting you both warmed up for a great interview.

It’s totally up to you whether or not your use any or all of these ice breakers. If you have a really great relationship with the person, and you don’t sense any resistance, by all means feel free to jump right into the family history questions.

Pro Tip for an Exceptional Interview

Now before we jump into the 10 family history interview questions, I want to share a Pro Tip with you that will help ensure the interview goes well.

As a genealogy professional speaker, broadcaster and someone who has interviewed hundreds of people, I’ve learned the single most key to a successful interview. If you do this one thing you can’t go wrong, and I can almost guarantee that interviewing your relative will be an incredibly rewarding experience for you both.

So here it is:  Don’t worry about being a great interviewer – be an amazing listener.

Every interview has the potential to be rich, and revealing, but not if you’re not carefully and passionately listening. While you’ll be armed with these 10 questions, only actively listening will reveal where the opportunities are to learn more.

Care more about what you are hearing from your relative than how you are coming off conducting the interview.

If you hear something intriguing, unexpected, or a little tantalizingly vague, stop and inquire about that. Don’t worry about going off script or following the questions exactly. The questions help identify the layers of the onion, but it’s your job to peel off the best pieces. I can’t stress this enough.

I thoroughly prepare for every interview, both family history interviews and interviews I do for the various genealogy shows I produce. But the best and sweetest moments come from something I heard and then asked more about.

Top 10 Family History Questions to Ask Your Relatives

Now that you’ve broken the ice and are focused on actively listening, it’s time to jump into the interview with your relative. 10 questions may not seem like a lot, but these are designed to uncover lots of future opportunities for discovery about your family history. And because you’re going to be actively listening for those intriguing, unexpected, and a little tantalizingly vague comments, you’ll want to reserve plenty of time to dive deeper into them.

Question #1:
Did you know your maternal grandparents?
What do you remember about them most?

Your goal is to get them in “memory mode” and away from yes or no answers. If they struggle initially with remembering, try to help them visualize a time, event or something else tangible and ask for a few details. Often a lack of memory is really a bit of shyness about being “on the spot.” Once they tap into a few specific memories, things will likely start to flow.

Question #2:
Did you know you paternal grandparents? What do you most remember about them?

Question #3:
Who’s the oldest relative you can remember meeting?

The beauty of this question is that it has the potential to reach far back into the family tree. If your relative is in their eighties or nineties, and they met someone when they were a child who was in their nineties, you could potentially gather first-hand information about someone born in the first half of the 19th century!

If no one comes to mind right away, ask them to remember when they were a child, and think about family gatherings and holidays. These were often the times when a rare visit with an elderly relative would likely have occurred.  

Question #4:
Did you have a favorite relative? Who was the relative you most enjoyed seeing?

This is a wonderful tidbit to uncover because it tells you something more about the characteristics they personally value. This interview question is also likely to uncover some fun and entertaining stories.

Question #5:
Who was the funniest person among your relatives?

Like question #4, this question tells you about their sense of humor (what they found funny) as well as some entertaining stories. It also reveals a relative who might be a lot of fun to research further.

Feel free to change “funniest” to any quality or attribute that intrigues you. If you get an enthusiastic response, go ahead and run a few more past them such as:

  • Who was the most serious person in the family?
  • Who was the most unpredictable?
  • Who was the hardest working?
  • Who would be the most likely to give you the shirt off his back?
  • Who was the smartest?

Question #6:
Which relative do you wish you had known better and why?

All of us have relatives we met once or twice but never had an opportunity to really get to know. The nice thing about the answer to this question is that it puts an opportunity in your lap. The person they name would be an ideal person to research further after the interview. Ask about the person in your other interviews with relatives. Do some independent research on them. Pull together what you learn and write a little something up for your relative to include in a thank you card or email. This small effort will further demonstrate your commitment to the family’s history and provide the perfect expression of your gratitude for the interview.

Question #7:
Who was the family historian in the family when you were growing up?

Even if your relative is a lot older than you, and the person they name has passed away, it’s still worth asking. Learn what you can about the person named and then try to get in contact with their descendants. Ask your relative how they knew them, where they lived, and the names of their kids. If you need help finding their living descendants, check out my video How to Find Living Relatives and download the handout (Premium Membership required.)

Question #8:
Remembering back to your childhood, was there a storyteller in your family?

If no one comes to mind initially, ask your relative if they recall hearing stories in the family. Ask, was their “family lore” that everyone was well aware of? You may get a few nuggets of information that could open up new avenues of genealogical research.

Question #9:
What family traditions did you most enjoy?

Family Traditions help bind generations together. Hearing about traditions that may have gone by the wayside can provide clues to the family culture and ethnic heritage. You might even hear about a tradition worth resurrecting.

Question #10:
What haven’t I asked that you’d like to tell me about?

You could also phrase this question as What haven’t I asked you that you were hoping I would? I like both and use them interchangeably. Either way, this interview question is a little insurance policy that there will be no regrets of missed opportunities after the interview is over.

Family History Interview Bonus Idea

Here’s a way to get even more from these 10 questions. Grab a piece of paper (or open a document on your computer), go back and watch this video again and answer these questions yourself. This is your chance to finally write down what you remember.

As the family historian, it’s easy to neglect doing these things for ourselves. Don’t let not telling your own story be yet another regret. Your memories are also an important part of your family’s history. Download the ad-free show Family History Interview Worksheet  (Premium Membership required) in the show notes Resources section. Fill it in and add your stories to your family history today! Then learn more about telling your own story by watching these Premium videos:

Resources

Comments

What are some of your favorite family history related interview questions that you would add to this list? Share yours in the comments below.

Ultimate Guide to 1890 Census and Substitute Records

Video & Show Notes 

Click the video player to watch episode 54 of Elevenses with Lisa about the 1890 census and substitute records. Below you’ll find the detailed show notes with all the website links I mention. Premium Members will find the downloadable ad-free PDF cheat sheet of these show notes at the bottom of this page in the Resources section, along with my BONUS 1890 Census Gap Worksheet. 

What Happened to the 1890 Census

The census shows us our ancestors grouped in families, making it a valuable resource for genealogy. Soon the 1950 census will be available, but for now the most current census publicly available in 1940. In it we may find, depending on our age, ourselves, our parents, our grandparents, and our great parents. In many cases it’s quick and rewarding to make your way back in time to  the 1890 census which was taken starting June 1, 1890.  And that’s where the trail hits a bump. In January 1921 a large fire broke out in the Commerce Building in Washington DC where the 1890 census records were stored, and most were destroyed as a result. Only 6,160 individual names remain in the remnants. (Learn more about the destruction of the 1890 census at the National Archives.)

Prior to the 1890 U.S. Federal Census, the last census taken was in 1880. With about 99% of the 1890 being destroyed as the result of the fire, this leaves a 20 year gap in the census (1880 – 1900.)

Much can happen in a span of twenty years. For example, your ancestors could have been born and reached adulthood. Filling in their timeline for this period requires a bit more effort, but the results are worth it.

In this video and article we’ll cover:

  • How to find the remaining fragments of the 1890 population enumeration
  • What you can learn from the 1890 census records
  • Lesser known 1890 census schedules that can still be found.
  • The best 1890 substitute records and how to find them.

Surviving 1890 Federal Census Population Schedules

A very small portion of the 1890 census has survived, but it’s more than just the population schedule. Here are the six types of records still available.

1. 1890 Federal Population Schedule Fragments

How to find the records:

List of the locations covered by the surviving 1890 federal census:

Alabama: Perryville Beat No.11 (Perry County) and Severe Beat No.8 (Perry County)

District of Columbia: Q Street, 13th St., 14th St., R Street, Q Street, Corcoran St., 15th St., S Street, R Street, and Riggs Street, Johnson Avenue, and S Street

Georgia: Columbus (Muscogee County)

Illinois: Mound Township (McDonough County)

Minnesota: Rockford (Wright County)

New Jersey: Jersey City (Hudson County)

New York: Brookhaven Township (Suffolk County) and Eastchester (Westchester County)

North Carolina: South Point and River Bend Townships (Gaston County), Township No. 2 (Cleveland County)

Ohio: Cincinnati (Hamilton County) and Wayne Township (Clinton County)

South Dakota: Jefferson Township (Union County)

Texas: J.P. No. 6, Mountain Peak, Ovilla Precinct (Ellis County), Precinct No. 5 (Hood County), No. 6 and J.P. No. 7 (Rusk County), Trinity Town and Precinct No. 2 (Trinity County), and Kaufman (Kaufman County)

Questions Asked in the 1890 U.S. Federal Census
The following questions were asked by the census taker:

  1. Name
  2. Age
  3. Sex
  4. Address
  5. Number of families in the house
  6. Number of persons in the house
  7. Number of persons in the family
  8. Relationship to head of family
  9. Race: white, black, mulatto, quadroon, octoroon, Chinese, Japanese, or Indian
  10. Marital status
  11. Whether married during the year
  12. Total children born to mother
  13. Number of children living
  14. Birthplace
  15. Birthplace of parents
  16. If foreign born, how many years in the United States
  17. Naturalized or in the process of naturalization
  18. Profession, trade, or occupation
  19. Months unemployed during census year
  20. Able to read and write
  21. Speak English; if not, language or dialect spoken
  22. Suffering from acute or chronic disease (if so, name of disease and length of time afflicted)
  23. Defective in mind, sight, hearing, or speech
  24. Crippled, maimed, or deformed (with name of defect)
  25. Prisoner, convict, homeless child, or pauper
  26. Home is rented or owned by the head or a member of the family
  27. (if so, whether mortgaged)
  28. Head of family a farmer, if he or a family member rented or owned the farm
  29. If mortgaged, the post office address of the owner

2. Schedules for Union Soldiers & Widows

According to the National Archives, “The U.S. Pension Office requested this special enumeration to help Union veterans locate comrades to testify in pension claims and to determine the number of survivors and widows for pension legislation. (Some congressmen also thought it scientifically useful to know the effect of various types of military service upon veterans’ longevity.) To assist in the enumeration, the Pension Office prepared a list of veterans’ names and addresses from their files and from available military records held by the U.S. War Department.

Index and images of schedules enumerating Union veterans and widows of veterans of the Civil War for the states of Kentucky through Wyoming. Except for some miscellaneous returns, data for the states of Alabama through Kansas do not exist. Some returns include U.S. Naval Vessels and Navy Yards. The schedules are from Record Group 15, Records of the Veterans Administration and is NARA publication M123.

Nearly all of the schedules for the states of Alabama through Kansas and approximately half of those for Kentucky appear to have been destroyed before transfer of the remaining schedules to the National Archives in 1943.”

How to find the records:

Search the United States Census of Union Veterans and Widows of the Civil War, 1890 (index & images) at FamilySearch.

These records can tell you:

  • State, county and district where census was taken
  • Date census was taken
  • Full name of surviving soldier, sailor, marine, or widow
  • Rank, company, regiment or vessel
  • Date of enlistment
  • Date of discharge
  • Residence
  • Disability
  • Length of service in years, months, and days
  • Remarks

Learn more:

3. Schedules Oklahoma Territories

The 1890 Oklahoma Territorial Census lists people who lived in the Oklahoma Territory. The seven counties making up the Oklahoma Territory at the time are listed below. Note the number as they were often listed only by these number on the census.

  1. Logan County
  2. Oklahoma County
  3. Cleveland County
  4. Canadian County
  5. Kingfisher County
  6. Payne County
  7. Beaver County

How to find the records:

4. Selected Delaware African American Schedule

One of the primary uses of the census by the government is to compile statistical reports using the data gathered. Many of these can be found online at places like Google Books.

The Delaware African American Schedule came about because of one of these statistical reports. According to the National Archives, in 1901 the Chief Statistician for Agriculture wrote a report about agriculture in the state of Delaware. Just before it was to be published, some of the conclusions reached in the report were disputed. The controversy centered around what was then referred to as “Negro” farmers. The results was that additional research was conducted in an effort to find all “Negro” farmers in the 1890 and 1900 Delaware census records. The dust up over the statistical report was fortunate indeed because these records are now available.

How to get the records:

The list is roughly in alphabetical order according to surname and contains the following information:

  • Name
  • Census Year
  • Enumeration District (ED) Number
  • ED Description (locality and county)
  • Occupation

5. Statistics of Lutheran Congregation & Statistical Information for the U.S.

These record collection offers limited usefulness because they don’t name people. However, if you have questions about Lutheran ancestors around 1890 or would like more contextual information about the time period, they might be worth a look.

Statistics of Lutheran Congregation reproduces a list of each Lutheran church or local organization compiled by the Census Office from information submitted by officials of the Lutheran officials.

How to find the records:

The National Archives – Contact the National Archives regarding National Archives Microfilm Publication M2073, Statistics of Congregations of Lutheran Synods, 1890 (1 roll).  Records are arranged by synod, then state, then locality.

For each church or local organization, the following information is given in seven columns:
(1) town or city
(2) county
(3) name of organization
(4) number or type of church edifice
(5) seating capacity
(6) value of church property
(7) number of members.

6. Statistical information for the entire United States

Statistical reports were compiled and analyzed by the Census Office after the 1890 census was completed. These massive statistical reports are available in National Archives Microfilm Publication T825, Publications of the Bureau of the Census.

How to find the records:

Google Books – Some of the statistical reports have been digitized and are available for free on Google Books. One of the most interesting is the Report on the Social Statistics of Cities in the United States at the Eleventh Census: 1890.

Best Substitute Records for the 1890 Census

Now that we’ve scoured every inch of available records remaining from the 1890 U.S. Federal Census, it’s time to go on the hunt for substitute records. We’ll be focusing on the best available and easiest to find resources.

1885 & 1895 State Census Records:

The U.S. federal government was not alone in taking the census. Some states also took their own state census. These were usually conducted in the years between the federal censuses, most commonly on the “5” such as 1875, and 1885. You may find some as far back as 1825 and as recent as 1925, as in the case of the state of New York.

How to find the records:

Look for state census records at state archives, state historical societies, and state libraries. Many are also conveniently searchable online, most commonly at FamilySearch (free) and Ancestry (subscription.)

Arizona, U.S., Territorial Census Records, 1882 (Ancestry)

Kansas 1895 (FamilySearch)

Kansas 1895 (Kansas State Historical Society)

Colorado State Census 1885 (FamilySearch)

Colorado State Census 1885 (Ancestry)

Michigan State Census 1894 (FamilySearch)

Michigan State Census 1894 (Ancestry)

Minnesota State Census 1885 (FamilySearch)

Minnesota State Census 1895 (FamilySearch)

Minnesota Territorial and State Censuses 1849 – 1905 (Ancestry – select year, then county)

Minnesota Territorial Census records from 1849, 1850, 1853, 1855, and 1857 and Minnesota State Census records from 1865, 1875, 1885, 1895 and 1905 (Minnesota Historical Society)

Florida State Census 1885 (FamilySearch)

Florida State Census 1885 (Ancestry)

Iowa State Census, 1885 (FamilySearch)

Iowa State Census, 1885 (Ancestry)

More on the Iowa 1885  and 1895 censuses from the Iowa Data Center

Iowa State Census 1895 (FamilySearch)

Iowa State Census 1895 (Ancestry)

Nebraska State Census 1885 (FamilySearch)

Nebraska State Census 1885 (Ancestry)

New Jersey State Census 1885 (FamilySearch)

New Jersey State Census 1885 (Ancestry

New Jersey State Census 1895 (FamilySearch

New Jersey State Census 1895 (Ancestry)

New York State Census 1892 (FamilySearch)

New York State Census 1892 (Ancestry)

New York City Police Census 1890 (FamilySearch)

New York City Police Census 1890 (Ancestry)

Rhode Island State Census 1885 (FamilySearch)

Rhode Island, U.S., State Censuses, 1865-1935 (Ancestry – Filter by year then county)

Wisconsin State Census, 1885 (FamilySearch)

Wisconsin State Census 1895 (FamilySearch)

Wisconsin, U.S., State Censuses, 1855-1905 (Ancestry)

Missouri, U.S., State Census Collection, 1844-1881 (Ancestry – Filter by year then county)

Missouri, U.S., State Census Collection, 1844-1881 (FamilySearch)

South Dakota, U.S., Territorial Census, 1885 (Ancestry)

South Dakota, U.S., Territorial Census, 1895 (Ancestry)

Lisa’s Pro Tip: Get a Bit More with Mortality Schedules

Do you happen to have someone in your family tree who was alive and well in the 1880 census but nowhere to be found in the 1900 census? Official death records may not have been available during this time frame where they lived, compounding the problem.

The U.S. Federal Censuses from 1850-1880 included a mortality schedule counting the people who had died in the previous year. Since the 1880 census began on June 1, “previous year” means the 12 months preceding June 1, or June 1 (of the previous year) to May 31 (of the census year).

Ancestry has a database of these schedules which fall just before the 20 year time frame we are trying to fill. However, this collection also happens to include Mortality Schedules from three State Censuses: Colorado, Florida and Nebraska. There were conducted in 1885. They weren’t mandatory so there are only a few, but if you happen to be researching in one of these states, you just might get lucky.

How to find the records:

While you’re searching, be aware that not all of the information recorded on the census is included in the searchable index. This means that it is important to view the image and don’t just rely on the indexed information.

Ancestry 1890 Census Substitute Database

Ancestry has compiled a special searchable collection of records that can be used to fill in the gaps left behind by the loss of the 1890 census. It includes state census collections, city directories, voter registrations and more.

How to find the records:

Find More 1890 Census Substitute Records at Ancestry

This substitute collection is a tremendous help, but don’t stop there. You can also manually hunt for substitute records to see if there might be something helpful that is overlooked in the 1890 census substitute search. This works particularly well if you have a specific research question in mind.

You might be wondering, why would I need to search manually? Many people rely on Ancestry hints to alert them to applicable records, and they figure the search engine will find the rest.

This is a mistake for two reasons.

  1. only approximately 10% of Ancestry® Records Appear as hints.
  2. Not all records at Ancestry are indexed and therefore searchable. There are thousands of browse-only digitized records. Read my article How to Find and Browse Unindexed Records at Ancestry – The Better Browsing Checklist.
  3. There may be a record that meets your needs that was not captured in the 1890 Census Substitute Collection. Try going directly to the Card Catalog and filtering to USA and then by decade such as 1890s.

FamilySearch 1890 Census Substitutes

While FamilySearch doesn’t have one massive substitute database, you can find several focused 1890 census substitute collections available online, at Family History Centers around the country and world, and in book form at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City.

How to find the records:
1. Go to FamilySearch
2. Log into your free account
3. In the menu go to Search > Catalog
4. Click Titles
5. Search for 1890 census substitute
6. If desired, filter down to records available or at a Family History Center near you.

City Directories as an 1890 Census Substitute

Some of the best and most comprehensive substitute records are city directories. If published in your ancestor’s area when they lived there, they can offer a year-by-year record. And that can do wonders for filling in the gap between the 1880 and 1800 census.

How to find the records:

You can find city directories at the big genealogy websites like Ancestry, MyHeritage and FamilySearch, as well as state archives, historical societies and libraries. Google searches also come in very handy in unearthing lesser known websites and repositories. Two of my favorite places to look that are both free and online are Google Books and Internet Archive.

  • Google Books
    Search for the state and county. On the results page click the Tools The first option in the drop-down menu will be Any View. Change it to Full View. The third option is Any Time. Click the down arrow and select Custom Range and set it to 1880 through 1890.

    10 surprising things to find at Google Books

    Episode 30: Lisa’s 10 surprising things to find at Google Books

  • Internet Archive
How to Use the Internet Archive

Watch episode 43 on the Internet Archive.

Like Google Books, the Internet Archive has a vast array of materials digitized and available for free. Watch Elevenses with Lisa episode 43 for ideas and search strategies.

Finding More 1890 Census Substitutes Online

We’ve touched on some of the most popular and helpful records that can be used to fill in the gap left by the loss of the 1890 U.S. Federal Census. As you expand your search look for:

  • County histories
  • Land records
  • Maps (plat and insurance maps)
  • Newspapers
  • Probate records
  • Tax records
  • Voter registers

Resources

Watch Next

Learn more about 1950 U.S. Federal Census Records. Watch episode 51 and episode 53.

 

Did you enjoy this episode? Have a question for Lisa?

You’re part of the family, so please leave a comment below!

Questions Asked in the 1950 U.S. Census

What questions were asked in the 1950 census? In this week’s video I’ll explain what was asked, and how the answers given can help provide clues for additional research about your family. You’ll also learn what was not asked and which questions were asked for the first time in 1950. Then we’ll wrap up with my Genealogy Pro Tip for the 1950 Census.

Episode 53 Show Notes  

We’re all looking forward to the 1950 census coming out in April 2022, followed soon after by the searchable index. But before we dig into it, it’s helpful to know what kinds of questions were asked and what kind of information you can expect to find about you, your parents, your grandparents or even your great grandparents.

If you haven’t watched it already, check out Elevenses with Lisa episode 51 for an overview of the 1950 census.

And I’ll have that video link for you again at the end of this video. And of course the best way to find your own genealogy gems is to follow my genealogy gems channel, so click the YouTube Subscribe button and that will toss me and this channel into your favorites list on YouTube for safe keeping and happy viewing for years to come.

The U.S. Federal Census is taken every 10 years here in the United States. Typically in genealogy we see more and more questions being asked each decade, which is awesome for us as family historians. But did you know that the 1950 population questionnaire actually asked FEWER questions than its predecessor in 1940.

Yep, according to the U.S. Census bureau, in 1940 every household was asked 34 questions. However, in 1950 they were asked just 20 questions. As we go through the questions I’ll let you know what’s the same, what unfortunately you will NOT being seeing, BUT also the few NEW questions that were asked.

Questions Asked on the 1950 U.S. Federal Census Questionnaire

The following questions were asked of everyone in the household.

1. Name of street, avenue or road where the household is located

2. Home or apartment number

3. Serial number of dwelling unit

4. Is this house on a farm (or ranch)?

5. If no, is this house on a place of three or more acres? (New question for 1950 thanks to the expansion of suburbia.)

6. Corresponding agriculture questionnaire number

7. Name

8. Relationship to head

9. Race

Census takers were instructed to assume that all members of the related household were the same race. For unrelated people they were to ask. And if you see a description you are unfamiliar with, consult the 1950 census enumerator instructions.)

10. Sex

11. How old was this person on his last birthday?

It was expected that there would be some folks who either didn’t know their exact age or didn’t care to share it. Census takers were instructed to try to zero in and get as accurate as possible. If age wasn’t known, they were instructed to enter an estimate as the very last resort, and footnote that it was an estimate.

12. Is this person now married, widowed, divorced, separated, or never married?

Marriage codes found in this column:
MAR = married
WD = widowed
D = divorced
SEP = separated
NEV = never married. People under the age of 14 were automatically labeled as never married. Also, common-law marriages were reported as Married, so while marital status can be an indicator to look for marriage records, it is possible that there may not be any.

13. What State or country was the person born in?

It’s important to note that if the baby was born in a hospital across the state line, they were reported as being born in the state where the family lived. This is important to keep in mind when hunting for birth certificates.

14. If foreign born, is the person naturalized?

This will be a yes or no. But if you see “AP” it means the person was born of American parents abroad or at sea. Also, if born at sea they were an American citizen if their father was, or if they were born after 5/24/1934 and either parent was American.

Before we get to the last six questions which were asked only of people 14 years of age and older, let’s take a look at the questions you might have expected to see that were asked in the previous 1940 census but were not.

Questions Not Asked in the 1950 Census that Were Asked in 1940

These questions include:

  • Home owned (O) or rented (R)
  • Value of home or monthly rental if rented
  • Attended school or college at any time since March 1, 1940?
  • Highest grade of school completed
  • Residence, April 1, 1935
    • City, town or village having 2,600 or more inhabitants. If less, enter “R”
    • County
    • State (or Territory or foreign country)
    • Farm?

Questions Asked in the 1950 Census of People Over the Age of 14

You may be wondering why the last 6 questions of the 1950 census were only asked of people over the age of 14. It’s because these questions were about employment status. Not surprisingly, these questions vary a bit from what was asked about in employment in 1940, but they are pretty similar.

  1. What was this person doing most of last week – working, keeping house, or something else?

Employment Codes used in questions 15:
WK = working
H = keeping house
U = unable to work
OT = other

16. If the person was “keeping house” or “something else” in question 15, did the person do any work at all last week, not counting work around the house? (Including work-for-pay, in his own business, working on a farm or unpaid family work)

17. If the person answered “no” to question 16, was he looking for work?

18. If the person answered “no” to question 17, even if he didn’t work last week, does he have a job or business?

19. If the person was working, how many hours did he or she work in the last week?

20. What kind of work does the person do?

    • What kind of business or industry is the person in?
    • Class of worker the person is.
      • Enumerators were to mark “P” for private employment, “G” for government employment, “O” for own business, or “NP” for working without pay

Here’s an example of an entry you might see for someone’s employment: Jewelry, Salesman, P. Armed forces was used for all types of military service.

The one glaring omission in 1950 is questions about whether the person worked for one of the government program  such as the Works Progress Administration known as the WPA or The Civilian Conversation Corp known as the CCC. This actually makes sense because these employment programs were focused on helping the unemployed during the Depression. WWII had most Americans working and doing their part in some fashion creating low unemployment. Therefore, the WPA was ended in 1943.

Genealogy Clues in the 1950 Census

Let’s quickly recap what you will learn from the answers to the questions asked during the 1950 census that can help you learn more about your family history:

You’ll see the names of your relatives and ancestors, where they lived and the relationships within the family.

You’ll find out where they were living and get the actual address. You can then use this information to find old maps, search city directories and learn much more about their neighborhood and their lives.

If your relatives lived on a farm you’ve got another genealogy gem to find which is their listing in the Agricultural census. Remember the population enumeration, the one counting people, is just one of the enumerations that was conducted. The 1950 population enumeration will give you the number where you can locate them in the agricultural questionnaire.

You’re also going to learn your relative’s age which will get you even closer to determining their birthdate. This in turn will help you locate their birth records. You will also learn the state or country where they were born.

If they were foreign born you will find out if they were naturalized. It’s a little disappointing that it doesn’t tell us the year of immigration or naturalization. However, a “yes” in the “is the person naturalized” column does provide you with an excellent clue to go look for those naturalization records. Learn more about finding and using naturalization records for genealogy in my Family History: Genealogy Made Easy podcast:

Episode 29: Immigration and Naturalization Records for Family History, Part 1
Genealogy lecturer and blogger Stephen Danko, PhD, begins a 3-part series on U.S. immigration and naturalization records. Learn about passenger arrival lists in the U.S., little-known certificates of arrival and naturalization records: how to find them and what’s in them.

Episode 30: Immigration and Naturalization Records for Family History, Part 2
Stephen Danko continues this series by focusing on passenger departure records created in European ports. He also talks more in-depth about U.S. naturalization records.

Episode 31: Immigration and Naturalization Records for Family History, Part 3
Stephen Danko talks in-depth about passenger list annotations and the immigrant’s experience at Ellis Island. You didn’t know what you were missing with those mysterious scribbles on 20th-century passenger manifests!

And finally, you’ll not only find out if they were married and if they had any previous marriages.

Lisa’s Pro Tip for the 1950 U.S. Census

After my first video on the 1950 census I got this question from Suzanne:
Will the 1950 census also have the children born to mother/children still living question?

The answer is, maybe.

Genealogy Pro Tips

Pro Tip: Keep an eye out for additional questions.

As in 1940, 5 percent of the population were asked an additional slate of questions. This was to provide sample data about the population. One of those questions asked was “If female and ever married, how many children has she ever borne, not counting stillbirths?”

Supplemental Questions Asked in the 1950 Census

Here are the additional questions that were asked of just 5% of the population in the 1950 U.S. Federal Census. (Note: They were asked of all ages.)

21. Was the person living in the same house a year ago? If the answer was no, then…

22. If no to question 21, was the person living on a farm a year ago?

23. If no to question 21, was the person living in the same county a year ago?

24. If no to question 23…

    • What county (or nearest place) was he living in a year ago?
    • What state or foreign country was he living in a year ago?

25. What country were the person’s mother and father born in?

26. What is the highest grade of school that the person has attended?

    • Enumerators were to mark “0” for no school; “K” for kindergarten; “S1” through “S12” depending on the last year of elementary or secondary school attended; “C1” through “C4” depending on the last year of undergraduate college education attended; or “C5” for any graduate or professional school.

27. Did the person finish this grade?

28. Has the person attended school since February 1st?

    • Enumerators could check a box for “yes” or “no” for those under thirty; for those over thirty, they were to check a box for “30 or over.”

For members of the household who were 14 years and older, they also answered these questions centered around employment details, money, military service previous marriages and the question Suzanne is hoping to have answered – children born to women in the household.

1950 census supplemental questions

1950 census supplemental questions asked of 5% of the population.

29. If the person is looking for work, how many weeks has he been looking for work?

30. Last year, how many weeks did this person not work at all, not counting work around the house?

31. Last year, how much money did the person earn working as an employee for wages or salary?

32. Last year, how much money did the person earn working at his own business, professional occupation, or farm?

33. Last year, how much money did the person receive from interest, dividends, veteran’s allowances, pensions, rents, or other income (aside from earnings)?

34. If this person is the head of the household: last year, how much money did his relatives in this household earn working for wages or salary?

35. If this person is the head of the household: last year, how much money did the person earn working at his own business, professional occupation, or farm?

36. If this person is the head of the household: last year, how much money did the person receive from interest, dividends, veteran’s allowances, pensions, rents, or other income (aside from earnings)?

37. If male: did he ever serve in the U.S. Armed Forces during…

    • World War II
    • World War I
    • Any other time, including present service

38. To enumerator: if the person worked in the last year, is there any entry in columns 20a, 20b, or 20c?

39. If yes, skip to question 36; if no, make entries for questions 35a, 35b, and 35c.

      • What kind of work does this person do in his job?
      • What kind or business or industry does this person work in?
      • Class of worker

40. If ever married, has this person been married before?

41. If married, widowed, divorced, or separated, how many years since this event occurred?

42. If female and ever married, how many children has she ever borne, not counting stillbirths?

The 1950 U.S. Census – A Valuable Genealogical Record

So now you know all the details on what you can look forward to learning about in the 1950 census. If you would like to learn more about the 1950 census, watch The 1950 Census for Genealogy. You can watch the video and get the complete show notes here.

The 1950 Census for Genealogy

WATCH NEXT: episode 51 and get the show notes here

Yakety Yak – Talk Back in the Comments

Elevenses with Lisa is a genealogy community, and discussion is a big part of the experience. In the Comments below please share on one of these topics:

  • What question are you most looking forward to getting an answer to in the 1950 census?
  • Who you’re hoping to find in the 1950 census?
  • What question do you have for me about the 1950 census?

Resources

Genealogy Gems Podcast Episode 252

Find Images and Photos in Old Newspapers with Newspaper Navigator

Newspaper Navigator is a new free online tool for finding images and photos in old newspapers at Chronicling America. It doesn’t work the way the Library of Congress website works, so in this episode I show you how to navigate the Newspaper Navigator. It’s a fun session that will have you finding new newspaper gems in no time!

To Listen click the media player below (AUDIO ONLY):

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This audio from this episode comes from Elevenses with Lisa episode 26. Log into your Premium membership and then click here to download the handy PDF show notes that compliment this podcast episode. 

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Podcast Resources

Download the episode mp3
Show Notes: The audio in this episode comes from Elevenses with Lisa Episode 26. Visit the show notes page here. 

10 Top Tips for Beginning German Genealogy

Show Notes & Set Your Reminder to Watch the Show

Click the video player below to watch 10 Top Tips for Beginning German Genealogy now. 

Episode 52 Show Notes 

Researching ancestors in another country can be a little daunting. Challenges include foreign languages, moving boundaries, and spelling variations. This is certainly true for German genealogy.

If you’re new to German genealogy or your research has stalled, this episode of Elevenses with Lisa is for you. In fact, even if you don’t have German ancestors I think you will still find the principles and ideas covered very helpful.

Translator, author and German handwriting expert Katherine Schober shares her 10 Top Tips for Beginning Germany Genealogy. These tips are packed with tools and resources that you can start using right away.

Katherine Schober is a German / English translator, specializing in the old German handwriting. She is the author of “The Magic of German Church Records” and “Tips and Tricks of Deciphering German Handwriting”, as well as the creator of the online course “Reading the Old German Handwriting.” And this year she will be one of the featured speakers at this year’s virtual International German Genealogy Conference.

Click the video below to watch the show. Then scroll down below to get all of the show notes. Premium Members will find the downloadable ad-free show notes cheat sheet PDF in the Resources section at the bottom of the page.

Mentioned in this video:

International German Genealogy Conference July 17-24, 2021.
Use special code EARLY until April 30 to get $50 off the package of your choice.
Registration here

Reading the Old German Handwriting Course online with Katherine Schober
Register for the course here

Use Coupon Code GEMS for 10% off the course.

Watch the video Finding German Villages for Genealogy and Family History with James M. Beidler ​  at the Genealogy Gems YouTube Channel

BOOK: The Family Tree Historical Atlas of Germany by James Beidler at Amazon.

10 Top Tips for Beginning Germany Genealogy

1. Start with What You Know about Your German Ancestor

Resist the temptation to start searching online immediately. Take the time to talk to your relatives, starting with the oldest. Review family documents, photo albums and other materials around your home. You may be surprised how much you already have, and the light that other relatives can shed on the family tree. Every step of the way its critically important to document everything!   

2. Look for Resources in America Before Jumping Over to Germany

  • Photos
  • Family Bibles (Watch Elevenses with Lisa episode 29)
  • Census Records
  • Local church records
  • Passenger Lists (Watch Elevenses with Lisa episode 34)
  • Newspapers
  • People

Read Katherine Schober’s article Before You Cross the Pond: Five Places to Find Your Ancestor in America.

3. Identify the Correct German Town

Records in Germany are kept at the local level. Make sure you have the right town in the right state.

Meyers Gazetteer
About the Meyers Gazetteer from the website: Meyers Orts- und Verkehrs-lexikon des deutschen Reichs “is the most important of all German gazetteers. The goal of the Meyer’s compilers was to list every place name in the German Empire (1871-1918). It gives the location, i.e. the state and other jurisdictions, where the civil registry office was and parishes if that town had them. It also gives lots of other information about each place. The only drawback to Meyer’s is that if a town did not have a parish, it does not tell where the parish was, making reference to other works necessary.”

Learn more at Genealogy Gems about Meyers Gazetteer – read 5 Expert Tips for Using Meyers Gazetteer for Your German Genealogy

The Historic Gazetteer at The Genealogical Gazetteer provides “The precise identification of places is essential in genealogy. Unfortunately, too few researchers care in identifying places. The project “GOV” was initiated to help historians and genealogists with the management of place references and to provide high quality data for anyone.”

4. Identify Available Records for the Town in Germany

  • FamilySearch Library Catalog
  • FamilySearch Wiki – click on region and see what is available.

5. Take Advantage of German Resources at the FamilySearch Wiki

6. Get Familiar with the Old German Handwriting.

  • Books
  • Reading the Old German Handwriting Online Course: https://german-handwriting.teachable.com/

7. Use German Church Records.

Katherine mentioned these websites:

8. Search for Vital Records

Vital records began nationwide in 1876, though it may be possible to find earlier records in certain locales.

9. Be Prepared for “Creative” Spellings.

Some pairs of letters can find themselves interchanged in German words. Understanding which ones were commonly swapped can save you a lot of frustration as you attempt to interpret documents. Examples of commonly switch letters include B and P, and K and G.

For help with common German spelling variations read Katherine’s article called Think Like a German: Spelling Variations in Genealogy Documents.

Geogen v4 offers genealogists a way to discover the areas of Germany where a surname appears most frequently. Type in your ancestor’s German surname and press Enter on your keyboard. Try variations that you have come across in records to compare the results.

geogen v4

Geogen v4 offers genealogists a way to discover the areas of Germany where a surname appears most frequently. 

10. Use the Genealogy FAN CLUB

If you get stuck, use the FAN CLUB principle by looking at Friends, Associates, and Neighbors. These are the people who interacted with your ancestors in important ways. They will come in particularly handy when you run out of records for your German ancestor. By reviewing the records of those closest to your ancestor you may find new clues that can move your search forward and lead back to your family tree.

Elevenses with Lisa Archive

Visit the archive of free Elevenses with Lisa episodes. 
Visit the archive of Premium Elevenses with Lisa episodes. 
You can also find them through the menu: Premium > Premium Videos > Elevenses with Lisa.

Learn More at Genealogy Gems

Lisa’s Guest: 

Katherine Schober is a German-English genealogy speaker, author, and translator, specializing in the old German handwriting. She is the author of “The Magic of German Church Records” and “Tips and Tricks of Deciphering German Handwriting”, as well as the creator of the online course “Reading the Old German Handwriting.” Katherine lives in St. Louis with her Austrian husband, and can be reached via e-mail at language@sktranslations.com or via her website, www.sktranslations.com.

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