This Genealogy On A Budget series presents links to free online genealogy databases.
An ancestor’s census enumeration sheet is probably one of the very first documents a budding genealogist learns to look for. The United States Federal Census had been recorded every 10 years since 1790. These records have been carefully stored by the National Archives and Records Administration and are available for free to researchers through the 1940 edition, with the exception of the 1890 census, the majority of which was destroyed by fire.
There is, however, a catch. The records are available for free, but if you want access to online indexes and a search function so that you may more easily find your 4th great-grandfather, then you might have to pay to view these documents.
Ancestry.com has the complete set, 1790-1940 (only a very few of the 1890 records survive), with the 1880 and 1940 records available for free at this time. To see the rest, you must have a subscription.
FamilySearch.org also has the complete set, but only the actual images for the years 1850, 1870, 1900 and 1940. For the other years, the data is available and searchable, but you have to hope that whoever transcribed them was correct, as you can’t view the documents themselves.
There is a third alternative, and it is the Internet Archive.
The record of the population census from 1790 to 1930. Scanned from microfilm from the collections of the Allen County Public Library and originally from the United States National Archives Record Administration.
The Internet Archive United States Census complete set 1790-1930 is available to view and download for free, but there is no index or ability to search.
But, if you know where to look, the images are there!
FamilySearch.org can provide you with the location (state, county, enumeration district, page number), which you can then use to find the sheet you want in Internet Archive’s census collection.
Here is an example. I have an image of the 1910 census sheet for my great-grandfather, William Earl Hall. I downloaded it from HeritageQuest many years ago. But, as you can see, it’s not a very clear image.
So tonight, armed with the state, county, ED and page number of that document (information which I knew from my old image, but which is also available from FamilySearch.org), I went to the Internet Archive US Census collection and within about 10-15 minutes was able to locate and download my great-grandfather’s 1910 sheet.
And the second image is actually of a much better quality than the first.