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Stand And Be Counted

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Stand and Be Counted—for Descendants’ Sake
It’s that time of the decade again.  Time to be counted.  The 2010 census forms will begin arriving in mail boxes March 15.  The form will be brief, asking only ten questions, including name, age, birth date, sex, race, and housing information. 

The U. S. Constitution requires a census every ten years to determine the number of seats each state will hold in the House of Representatives.  The number of seats will change for the 2012 elections, likely affecting 18 states. 
Census data also determines how $400 billion in federal dollars will be distributed.
The census is intended to count all U. S. residents.  It may surprise some to know that its purpose is not genealogical.  The census does, however, yield much valuable information about our ancestors.  In fact, it contains data foundational for the study of history, biography, demography, immigration to the U. S., migration within the U. S., ethnicity, occupations, economics, social anthropology, medical history, local history, and family history.  Because of the wealth of information about individuals and families, census records are the most frequently used records created by the federal government.

In the beginning, there were no forms to fill out.  Census takers canvassed their districts door to door, asking questions at each house and recording responses on whatever paper they had.  Not until 1830 were they supplied with printed questionnaires.  For the 1850 census, enumerators received printed instructions from the Census Office, along with supplies for recording data collected.  They were instructed not to fold the pages and not to allow anyone to “meddle with [their] papers”.

Questions asked and data gathered varied from one decade to the next.  Beginning in 1790 and continuing through 1840, the census recorded the name of the head of household only, and merely a count of others in the household by age, sex, and race.  From 1850 forward, the names of all household members are recorded.  The 1880 census was the first to record city street addresses.
Records Available
Census records are available in several formats in the Virginia Room at TCPL. 

All existing census records for Tazewell County are available on microfilm, beginning with 1820.  Since Tazewell County was established December 19, 1799, there are no records for 1790, the year of the first U. S. census.  Both 1800 and 1810 were burned during the War of 1812.  And records for 1890 burned in 1921.  Otherwise, the records are complete through 1930.  The 1940 census is due to be released in 2012.  For privacy protection of living individuals, there is a 72-year delay in release of census records.

Thanks to the patient work of dedicated souls, print transcriptions and indexes of census records are also available.  The Library collects all records for Tazewell County and many records of other counties in migration routes into southwest Virginia.

The miracle of modern technology has broadened access to census records in recent years.  All census records for the entire country are now viewable online through Heritage Quest.  You can search by name, location, and year, and see easy-to-read transcribed information along with page views of the original records to find other residents of the household and their neighbors.  You may access Heritage Quest from any computer with your library card.  From our website, go to Electronic Resources, then click on Heritage Quest.

Faces of America
 Henry Louis Gates, Jr. shows us how interesting it is to explore our family history in the PBS series, “Faces of America”, which concludes March 3 at 8:00.  His team has researched the ancestry of 12 American celebrities (Meryl Streep, Stephen Colbert, Queen Noor, Eva Longoria, Yo Yo Ma, Kristi Yamaguchi and others) with varied international backgrounds and discovered that 11 are related, revealing the interconnectedness of people the world over, bringing home to all of us the reality of “six degrees of separation”.

To one who has heard family stories from a genealogist mother all her life, it has been surprising to see how little some of these celebrities know about their families.  It has also brought to life the people of past generations, given the skeletons of dusty censuses flesh and blood and hearts and dreams and stirred a curiosity to know more about them.

In a similar vein, “Who Do You Think You Are?”, the  American version of a popular show originating on the BBC, airs Fridays at 8 pm on NBC, beginning March 5.  Among featured celebrities learning about their roots are Matthew Broderick, Lisa Kudrow, Spike Lee, Sarah Jessica Parker, Brooke Shields, and Emmitt Smith.

Like Alex Haley’s groundbreaking series “Roots”, both of these current television programs may send many people to the census records to embark on their own personal roads of discovery.  To start digging into your family history, visit us at or call 988-2541.

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