Searching the Census Records

I am currently taking a course on U.S. Census Records through the National Institute for Genealogical Studies in association with the Professional Learning Centre, Faculty of Information Studies at the University of Toronto).  We reached the end of the course and our final assignment was to develop a research plan for productive and efficient searching through Census Records.  I took a different approach than many of the other students and described a step-by-step approach to searching the census, mainly by using the search tools at Ancestry.com.  I spent quite a bit of time on this assignment and decided to post it here in the hope that perhaps someone can benefit from it.

My Research Plan for searching the US Census includes:

  1. Collect known information about the family, including names of family members, address at the times of the census, year of immigration, occupations, and the dates and locations of births, marriages, deaths in the family.  This basic information will help choose the correct census years and locations and will help verify that the family found is indeed the correct family.
  2. Using the information collected in Step 1, choose census years and locations to search.
  3. Use an online, indexed census collection, such as the collection on Ancestry.com.  The advent of online census databases, especially with an every name index is by far the most efficient way to search the US Census.
  4. If the name is uncommon, search only by surname.  For example, searching for the surname “Flichtenfeld” using an exact search on Ancestry.com finds only three Flichtenfelds in the entire country in 1910.  If the name is only moderately common, add additional search criteria.  For example, using an exact search on Ancestry.com for the 1910 Census and searching “Saxton” finds 1411 entries, searching for “George Saxton” results in 48 entries, and searching for “George Saxton” in Utah yields only two entries.  If the name is very common, add more search criteria.
  5. If the search results in no likely matches, search for members of the household other than the head of household.  Since not every collection has an every name index, and earlier census records only include the head of household, this method will only work for the 1850 Census and later, and will not work for the 1910 Census on Ancestry.com yet, since that collection still only has a head of household index.
  6. If the search still results in no likely matches, conduct the search for members of the family again using the ranked search on Ancestry.com.  In the case of the ranked search, enter as much information as is available; even a guess can help when using the ranked search.
  7. If the search still results in no likely matches, try a different index such as the Heritage Quest collection available through some genealogical societies and public libraries, or the Genealogy.com collection.  Different indexes are usually different, meaning that an individual incorrectly indexed in one may be correctly indexed in another.  In some cases, census records have been transcribed and/or indexed for limited areas by individuals and groups.  For example, http://www.us-census.org includes a number of transcribed US Census Records that may help find someone in the census, but the coverage is spotty.  The entire 1880 census is indexed and searchable at http://www.familysearch.org.
  8. Search the indexes using creative spellings of the names.  For example, search for “Gilson” instead of “Gibson”, “Smythe” for “Smith”, “Danco” for “Danko”, or “Niedzialkosky” for “Niedzialkowski”.  Sometimes the person who indexed the records misread the census record, and sometimes the enumerator simply misspelled the name on the census itself.  Occasionally, people  even changed the spelling of their own names.
  9. Search the Soundex cards available for the 1880-1930 Census Records.  A Soundex search is sometimes time consuming and the Soundex indexes for 1890, 1900 and 1920 are incomplete.
  10. Use resources such as City Directories and Military Records to find addresses of the family.  Use the addresses to find the correct census enumeration district and search the census manually.  Search the census for the street and the house number and examine the records to see who was living at that address at a given time.  Alternately, search all the records for a likely enumeration district line by line for the family.  The surname of one family I searched for was nearly illegible on the census record itself and was badly misindexed as a result: the surname “Niedzialkoski” was indexed as “Pudgealkoski” and any search for the surname, including a Soundex search, would not have helped.
  11. Search substitute records such as Church Census Records (sometimes called the “Status Animarum”), which can list the entire family group in one place.  Search substitute records such as Tax Lists, Poll Tax Lists, Court Records, and Land Records to find information about families and where they lived.  Sometimes these records may actually provide more information than the census records, especially for those census years when only the head of household is named.

Please post a comment on this assignment.  I’d like to hear any ideas other people have on searching Census Records.  Just click on the “Comments” link below (it will either say “No Comments” or show the number of Comments, if any have been posted).  If you’d rather send your comments to me by email, rather than posting them directly, you can email me at stephen@stephendanko.com (the address is also posted at the upper right corner of this page, under the link “E-mail Steve”).

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2 Responses to Searching the Census Records

  1. I recently located one of my ancestors in the 1850 Census in Rootstown, Portage County, Ohio but did it the “hard” way by looking through each page of the Ancestry.com census for Rootstown township. I had done all kinds of searches – the surname being Berlin, but could not find them in the index under any kind of variation.

    I found them on the 25th page of 32 pages, so it took a while… they were listed under the name “Ellsworth”. I know this is the right family because the names and ages of all the family members match up to known information. The person listed just prior to this family was a woman by the name of Ellsworth, so I’m guessing that the census taker messed up a bit!

    After having done the page by page search, I realized that I could have found them much quicker by simply doing a first name search on one of the children who has the relatively unique name of Milton. Doing the first name search for Rootstown, Portage County only brings up two Miltons. Would I have clicked through on the one of the right age? I don’t know but I sure will in the future.

    So, you might add to your list of searches a “first name” search, especially if the name is somewhat unique.

  2. Thanks for the suggestion, Becky. I often forget about the “first name” search that you describe.

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