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Not as easy as it sounds

Reader Maureen was delighted with the Census Bureau publication that set out the directions to the census takers in each U.S. census from 1790 through 2000 that was featured in Monday’s blog post, Read the directions.1“I downloaded it immediately,” she said. “I love researching family in the censuses but am always aware that there is an enumerator who ‘translates’ and records the information the family provides.”

And then she asked the tough question: “do you know of any document that maps the census districts? Often they are District 12, xx County. But where is that? Knowing where your ancestors actually lived, the farm or house location, is part of the fun IMHO of doing genealogical research. But District 12, xx County is a lot of land. I could always go to land records of course…”

To which, of course, the only possible answer The Legal Genealogist can offer is…

It depends.

You see, the actual numbered enumeration districts that we often see in census records didn’t get those numbers until 1880.2 As explained by the National Archives:

An enumeration district, as used by the Bureau of the Census, was an area that could be covered by a single enumerator (census taker) in one census period. Enumeration districts varied in size from several city blocks in densely populated urban areas to an entire county in sparsely populated rural areas.

Enumeration district maps show the boundaries and the numbers of the census enumeration districts, which were established to help administer and control data collection. Wards, precincts, incorporated areas, urban unincorporated areas, townships, census supervisors` districts, and congressional districts may also appear on some maps. The content of enumeration district maps vary greatly. The base maps were obtained locally and include postal route maps, General Land Office maps, soil survey maps, and maps produced by city, county, and state government offices as well as commercial printers. Census officials then drew the enumeration district boundaries and numbers on these base maps.3

For the years when these numbered districts existed, if Maureen wants maps of those census districts, there are some pretty good options out there:

• Steve Morse’s Finding ED Definitions for (1880-1940) in One Step page is a terrific resources. Choose the year from the dropdown box at the top, then choose the state and the county and the district number, and you should get at least some descriptive information. For the 1930 district 16-1909 in the City of Chicago, for example, it tells us that it was in “Ward 50 (part), bounded by (N) Howard; (E) N. Western Ave.; (S) Touhy Ave.; (W) N. Kedzie Ave.”4

• FamilySearch’s collection, “United States Enumeration District Maps for the Twelfth through the Sixteenth US Censuses, 1900-1940”, offers more than 63,600 images of enumeration districts for all but the earliest census where enumeration districts were numbered. The images aren’t indexed, but the states are in alphabetical order, and the counties within each state are in alphabetical order.

• Search the National Archives Catalog for census maps as well. Many of the maps — particularly from 1940 and 1950 — have been digitized and are online.

But for earlier periods? Before 1880, what we really have are counties and then whatever subdivisions the person in charge of the census takers in that county — a census supervisor or the U.S. marshal or deputy marshal in the area — decided to use.5

And there isn’t any one place where you can go to get breakdowns on those areas. Even some libraries don’t get this right. The Cornell University Library page on U.S. Census Maps gleefully tells people looking for detailed information to go to the Historical Census Browser, a really neat online resource of the University of Virginia Library. Only one hitch. When you go there, it tells you in no uncertain terms that one of the things you can’t do there is “find information for areas below the county level (e.g. cities, census tracts).”6

The Census Bureau itself advises: “For locating pre-1880 maps, local city directories might be of help; the Library of Congress has a significant collection. Another collection that might be of help is the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps, which began in 1867. Local street numbering systems probably had not changed all that much, though there would be new streets and changes to old ones. The maps also contain detailed descriptions of the buildings on the streets.”7

If the census itself references a township and range, you’re in luck, because that at least means you’re dealing with the federal land system and you can zoom in to the right area on a web map like the one from the U.S. Geological Survey. If it references a judicial district or magistrate’s district, state statutes may help with the definitions of the district lines.

And, as Maureen notes, if all else fails, … “always go to land records of course…”


  1. Judy G. Russell, “Read the directions,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 23 Nov 2015 ( : accessed 24 Nov 2015).
  2. FamilySearch Research Wiki (, “United States Federal Census,” rev. 30 Oct 2014.
  3. 1940 Federal Population Census : Enumeration District Maps,” Resources for Genealogists, National Archives ( : accessed 24 Nov 2015).
  4. Finding ED Definitions for (1880-1940) in One Step, One-Step Webpages by Stephen P. Morse ( : accessed 24 Nov 2015).
  5. FamilySearch Research Wiki (, “United States Federal Census,” rev. 30 Oct 2014.
  6. Historical Census Browser, University of Virginia Library ( : accessed 24 Nov 2015).
  7. Where can I find enumeration district maps?,” Frequently Asked Questions, U.S. Census Bureau ( : accessed 24 Nov 2015).
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