5 tips for searching US census records

Computerized records can often be a blessing and a curse.  The availability of digitized images online is a far greater convenience when compared with traveling hundreds or thousands of miles to their point of origin.  If, however, a transcription or other error hides your record from view, it can leave you scratching your head trying to figure out what to do next.

When searching census records online, there are some special techniques you can employ to help find even the most stubborn hidden ancestors.

1. Can’t find Grandma?  Look for someone else!

If you’ve conducted a thorough search of the census index for a given year, but keep coming up empty, turn to your family group sheets for help.  Did your ancestor have a sibling with an unusual or uncommon name?  It will likely be much easier for you to find Melvin than Mary.  Gender doesn’t matter, as long as the ages were close enough so you can reasonably expect to find them living under the same roof.  Try using one or more uncommon given names and then scan the results looking for siblings that match the person you’re truly after.  

Your pedigree charts include only the names of your direct-line ancestors, so you will have to consult family group sheets or other notes to select from the names available.

2. Search without a name

In some instances, you’ll be surprised with the combination of errors which might result in your ancestor hiding in plain sight.  The name may be transcribed exactly as it appears in the historical record, but the census enumerator may have written the name incorrectly years earlier.  If you have strong additional evidence for a person, but still cannot locate them in a particular census, try your search using everything except the name.

In other words, use location, gender, age, relationship, and place of birth to filter out names that don’t match so you can view those that do.  Searching a particular state, county, and city/township for a 12-year old son born in Virginia already narrows your pool of results. 

If you receive a large number of results, add one or both parent’s names to help narrow your selection even further.  If you receive too few results, remove the parents and add the name of one other person who was likely living as a member of the household.  This technique will take some practice and you will have to carefully inspect the results presented, but once you get the idea you’ll likely use this method often.

3. Use approximate year of birth

It is often amusing to follow one individual through several census years.  Some women appear to have discovered the fountain of youth, aging just five or six years between census decades.  The changing census date itself – sometimes April 1st, but also January 1st, June 1st, and other dates – can further complicate matters.

Census officials had to rely upon the informant from each family to provide correct information.  Age was recorded in some fashion for each of the first sixteen US census (1790-1940).  Rather than specifying an exact year for your ancestor, even when you have strong evidence of their exact year of birth, allow some room for error.  If your evidence notes a birth year of 1904, try using 1904, plus or minus 2 years.  Expand or narrow your selection as needed based on the number of results found.

4. Establish bookends

As you prepare to search for one or more ancestors using census records, consider the range of possible census years given their dates of birth and death.  Using information from headstones, obituaries or other sources, note the birth and death years for your ancestors.

If your great great grandfather was born in 1823 and died at the age of 62, then 1885 would have been his approximate year of death.  In this example, the first US census he could have appeared in was 1830 and the last would have been 1880.  This gives you six opportunities to find him in the census – first as a child of about 7 years of age in the 1830 census and last in the 1880 census as a 57-year old man, possibly the head of household.   

By establishing census bookends, you will prevent wasted effort looking for a person in a census before they were born or after they died.

5. Walk backwards through time

As a general rule, it is often easier to find your ancestors as you step backward through time.  This is especially true for census records given the increase in detail collected each decade. 

In the example above, you have six census years to search for your great great grandfather.  By starting with the 1880 census, you will be able to determine his name, occupation, approximate year of marriage, names for other family members, as well as his place of birth and the place of birth for his father and mother.

Each of these data elements provides you with additional clues to use as filters as you step back to an earlier decade.