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Hoosier History Live

Nov 15, 2019

(November 9, 2019) As the nation readies itself for the 2020 U.S. Census, Hoosier History Live takes a close look at how records of the previous national headcounts - there have been 23 of them in all, beginning with the first in 1790 - can be used to unearth factual information and illuminate social history, as well as inform us about other aspects of our heritage.

Sharon Butsch FreelandOur exploration highlights various challenges faced by the once-a-decade tallying of the population - most of the 1890 Census records were destroyed in a massive fire, for example - as well as the widely disparate questions that have been asked by census takers.

"The first five enumerations listed the number of slaves in each household, and the 1930 enumeration listed whether or not there was a radio in the household," says our guest, Indianapolis-based history researcher Sharon Butsch Freeland.

Sharon regularly uses census information to delve into the history of families and old houses, as well as to investigate historical figures such as the Indianapolis-born wife of Treasure Island author Robert Louis Stevenson. In 2018, Sharon was a guest on our show about the colorful life of Fanny Vandegrift Stevenson. (Sharon's other guest gigs have included our 2017 show about her alma mater, Shortridge High School).

Noting that the census was established by the U.S. Constitution with the purpose of calculating fair representation in the House of Representatives, Sharon adds:

Census takers, usually hired from the local community, interview residents of an assigned neighborhood and collect information for the national headcount. Courtesy U.S. Census Bureau."I doubt the founding fathers had any idea of the many ways the census information would eventually be used."

To protect the privacy of living people, census records can't be viewed by the public until 72 years after the census date. Currently, the most recent available for viewing is the 1940 U.S. Census. In 2022, the 1950 U.S. Census will become available.

Some U.S. Census insights, courtesy of Sharon:

  • "Digitized census records from 1790 to 1940 can be viewed online at (by subscription) or at for free," she reports. " is available free of charge at National Archives facilities nationwide and at many public libraries."
  • In Indianapolis, the 1870 U.S. Census was collected a second time, during the subsequent year. That's because city leaders had estimated the population to be more than 50,000. When the 1870 Census reported fewer than 41,000, power-brokers in Indianapolis demanded a recount. The 1871 recount was about 19 percent higher.
  • In the 1960 U.S. Census, women were asked how many babies they had ever had. Employed people were asked how they got to work: railroad, subway, bus, streetcar, taxi, private auto, car pool, walking, or whether they worked from home. (In 1980, bicycle was added to the list.)

A note about the fire that destroyed most of the 1890 U.S. Census records: The inferno occurred at the U.S. Commerce Building in Washington D.C. Although fragments of information from a few states survived, all of the 1890 records from Indiana were lost in the blaze.

The 2020 U.S. Census will be the first to offer the option of responding online. That's the method the Census Bureau expects most people to use to answer the questions, although respondents also can call a phone number to provide their answers. "Those who don't respond will receive paper questionnaires in the mail," according to an Associated Press report about next year's process. "If all those methods fail, the bureau will send out 'enumerators' to knock on doors."

Our guest Sharon Butsch Freeland has a family connection to census-taking: Her maternal grandmother, Catharine Tomlinson, was an enumerator for the 1930 U.S. Census, knocking on doors in the Indianapolis neighborhood where she lived with her family.

A decade earlier, the 1920 Census had determined that more Hoosiers were living in urban areas than rural ones. The percentage of rural residents in Indiana has declined noticeably in every census since then.