Census records are a valuable and unique form of genealogy resource and its certain that you’ll be using them at some point in your research. Knowing what they contain and how they work is a good first step.
In America, there have been national census counts since 1790 and there has been one every 10 years since then. They are not all available online, but you can find many years in searchable or transcribed databases.
The first 1790 census was pretty sparse and didn’t hold the same type of information you’ll find in later years. That count only had the name of the household head, counts of the number of males and females (without names) and the number of slaves owned. Some of the 1790 census records have been lost or destroyed over the years and are no longer available.
Later, more complete documentation was started for each household. Most censuses have the names and ages for all members of the household along with places of birth, occupations, religion and marital status.
For Canadian ancestors, you’ll find that the first census dates to 1666 when we were still under control of Britain. As an independent country, the first one was in 1871. There are also censuses taken every 10 years just like in the USA.
Either way, you’ll be able to find census records in print or microfilm format in most major library locations across the country. Seeing the originals can be helpful because the handwriting on the forms can be hard to read, which can (and has) led to many transcription errors.
You can also find many years worth of census records on the Internet, both as transcribed texts as well as scanned images. Not all sources are going to offer up the same versions, with most of them being searchable by surname. Many years can be found, but not all of them. Records are being transcribed and cataloged by volunteers in most cases so it can take some time to get them easily available through websites.
For both Canadian and American census records, here are some sites to check:
USGenWeb Census Project – A volunteer project that is currently transcribing and publishing many years of census records, organized by state and county.
Ancestry.com – you do have to pay to use it, but Ancestry does offer a huge collection of census records to search through. A great genealogy resource.
1940 Census – a newer site offering scanned images from the latest set of records to be released. You can only browse by region and county, not by name.
Automated Genealogy – has several yeas of old Canadian census records (1901 and 1911) as well as several partial records for provincial counts.
Library and Archives Canada – an index of many years of Canadian censuses again.