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The question:
My relative was in the Armed Forces during the census years of 1950, 1960 and 1970, and was in three different foreign countries in those years. Where are these census records maintained and how can they be accessed?

U.S. Federal Census records are one of the most useful sources to begin finding out about your ancestors and their families. Regretfully, your relative will have to wait about twenty five to forty five years before accessing information on the 1950 to 1970 Federal Census records. By law, federal census records are restricted from public access for seventy-two years. This is the period of time the U.S. Congress determined as the average age at which people die. The purpose of all of this is protecting the rights of privacy for living individuals. In this day when identity theft is a common crime, this protection is very much appreciated. Census records contain a great deal of personal information. In addition to locating ancestors, these records provide details about age, birth places, marital relations, immigration, naturalization, military service, education, personal finances, and more.

An alternative approach to searching for a family member who served overseas during the mid to late twentieth century, is to search the Internet for information about specific military units. Many regiments have web sites devoted to the veterans that served with their units. These sites may provide rosters, historical date, contact information so that individuals can communicate with one another, and calendars promoting activities, such as reunions, air shows, etc.

When the 1950, 1960, and 1970 Censuses become available they will provide information about the men and women in military service overseas. Military units, including those stationed at the battlefront were required to fill out census forms and return them through the chain of command back to the U.S. Census Bureau. These records detailed all of the men serving in their respective units, where they were officially based. An interesting aspect of this, which also applies to the earlier 1920 and 1930 censuses, is that, when the census was filled out by families in the United States, if a family member was serving in the military, or providing civilian service to the military away from home, they were not to be listed with their family, but with their military unit. The exception to this rule was that officers were to be listed with their families. This will be somewhat confusing to researchers when these records become available. Another interesting fact to point out is that the U.S. military has not been involved in a major war at the time of any census, with the lone exception of 1970 (the Viet Nam War). The primary purpose of censuses was to determine the number of people in each state, and thereby apportion the number of congressmen representing according to population size. People living overseas, both civilian and military were not counted into these totals. For further information about military records in the U.S. Federal Census, see Americans Overseas in U.S. Censuses, By Karen M. Mills (U.S. Census Bureau
Washington, DC 20233-8800, Issued: November 1993, Technical Paper No. 62), at http://www.census.gov/population/www/socdemo/overseas/twps0062.html.

U.S. Federal Census records are available to the public, every ten years, from 1790 when the first census was taken, to 1930. Copies of these records are available on microfilm at the National Archives, the Family History Library of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and its many branch Family History Centers, and at many other libraries and associations throughout the country. These records are most easily available on-line at a number of genealogy sites, but most notably at Ancestry.com and Heritage Quest.com. Published indexes exist for many census records, but most of the census records found on-line have digitized indexes, making searches much easier to conduct.


Author’s Bio: James W. Petty AG, CG, is a career professional genealogist; is president of Heirlines Family History and Genealogy (www.heirlines.com), and is currently serving as the president of the Salt Lake Chapter of the Association of Professional Genealogists (APG). He lives in the Salt Lake City area with his wife Mary.