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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.
 1870  First census to name all former slaves.
 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.
    Go to:
  • Charts and Forms from the National Archives allows you to view or print a PDF version of blank templates of Federal Census (Slaves, Veterans, Indians), Non-Population Census (Agricultural, Industrial-Manufactures, Mortality), Immigration, and Draft Registration forms.
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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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See North Carolina Census Records Online, for U.S. Census records for North Carolina.

Microfilm Resources
Census Records on Microfilm in the North Carolina Collection at the Gaston County Public Library.
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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
      Go to:
  • 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. Example of a blank 1860 Slave Schedule.
    • The 1850 and 1860 slave schedules are available in Ancestry Library Edition.
    • The 1850 and 1860 North Carolina slave schedules for Gaston and Lincoln County are available on microfilm at the Gastonia Main Library.
    • United States Census (Slave Schedule), 1850 is at
      Go to:
    • The 1860 slave schedule is available at Internet Archive (includes Reel 920 - Reel 927).
      Gaston County is located on Reel 922.
      Go to:
  • There is a surviving special census from 1890 of Union veterans. In a few places the enumerator also listed Confederate veterans.
    • Available in Ancestry Library Edition
    • United States Census of Union Veterans and Widows of the Civil War, 1890 is at
      Go to:
    • 1890 Special Schedule of the 11th Census enumerating Union Veterans and Widows of Union Veterans of the Civil War. Microfilm Copy Available at the Gastonia Main Library.

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.
    Go to:
  • 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 with the 1880 census, each county was divided into "enumeration districts" (EDs). Each census year had different EDs. The term subdivision was used in earlier censuses to refer to part of a supervisor's or marshall's district.

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.

  • Steve Morse's website provides 3 utilities to find EDs for an 1880 to 1950 Location and go straight to the page you want in the census.
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  • Family Search has the United States Enumeration District Maps for the Twelfth through the Sixteenth US Censuses, 1900-1940.
    Go to:
  • HeritageQuest has the U.S. Enumeration District Maps and Descriptions, 1940. HeritageQuest is a free genealogy database available through It can be accessed from any internet-enabled device with a current library card number.
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Author: Gaston County Public Library

Title: The US Census for Genealogists: 1790 - 1940
Revised: 4 October 2017

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