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USA Census Records

A census record search can help you to pinpoint when and where someone was born by noting the date of the census, the person’s age, and what is listed for the birth state.

When you conduct an ancestry search find them in more than one census, you might find that their age changed from one census to the next, by more or less than ten years. This should give a clue as to when they were born within a couple of months, but this can also indicate a discrepancy or that you might be following the wrong family.

Census Records

What Can you Find in Census Records?

Some facts that you can discover include:
  • place of residence
  • number of children
  • year of marriage
  • occupations
  • income
  • land ownership and worth
  • immigration years
  • naturalization status
  • important family and friend relationships
  • Finding and using historical census data, is a good starting point for building your ancestry, but they should not be the only sources you use in your research.
  • When analyzing any document and the data found within, keep in mind that it may reveal family heritage facts that may or may not be accurate and may contain family genealogy data that contradicts known heritage.

Census Records

How to Begin your Family Search with a Census

  1. When you search an online database, start by filling in all the search criteria fields - first and last name, approximate date of birth, where they were born, etc.
  2. If you are not successful, try adding more people if the search allows for that. Depending on the person’s age and status, try adding a wife and child, or parents and siblings.
  3. If that failed, try removing the last name, or use alternate spellings of first and last name.
  4. If you are conducting a census record search and you are looking at an index, which does not contain a copy of the original, it might only contain the head of household, so if you are looking for another adult, such as a sister, brother, father, or mother, knowing how the index was put together is important to a successful search.

Genealogy Introduction to the Census at the National Archives


Why you Might not Find your Ancestors in a Census

  • When tracing your family history, remember to look for your ancestors using different spellings. Many Census takers often wrote the name the best they could, with the way it sounded, when recording family ancestry data.
  • People, who have indexed online databases, have erroneously made mistakes in recording names and information too. The mistakes can be either by transcribing the common handwritten letter or by mistyping the record.
  • Search using abbreviations, variations, phonetic spellings, nicknames, initials, or substitute letters that are commonly mistaken for other letters.
  • Check to see where the parents, siblings, other family members, or known close friends are. Locating other family members can lend a clue to finding your ancestor.
  • Be sure to check surrounding counties, as boundaries have changed over the years.
  • If you can’t find your ancestor, think of various reasons why you couldn't find your ancestor. Maybe they got married or temporarily moved for a job.
  • If none of the above worked, look for the person in a city directory for the year that is closest to the census date. This will confirm if they were living where you thought they were. If you discover them in the directory, look up the names from the directory that surrounds your relative. When you find them, you should be able to locate your ancestor. Most likely there is a spelling error in the document or it was wrongly transcribed.

Use Soundex for Name Variations

Finding a person can be an issue due to the way the name was spelled either on purpose or by accident. Because the US census takers often did not confirm the spellings of names, the soundex calculator was created to index names in the 1880, 1900, 1910 and 1920 US Census. The soundex calculator can also aid genealogists by identifying spelling variations for a given surname. Click on the link be taken to the soundex calculator.

Case Study and Tips from using Census Records

By looking through 54 census records that were from 1850 to 1870 of a family nucleus of grandparents, parents, children and relatives, we discovered that 15 children were found living with multiple parents or guardians, due to: divorce, parental death, or were farmed out to live with relatives for various reasons. We had to use various sources to confirm this information. If we just used census records, we would not have accurate family genealogy data. Even after 1870, be cautious as to how you list children. Just because it lists son or daughter, it does not mean that the husband and wife are both the biological parents.