Having trouble finding your ancestor in the census records? Try these alternate genealogy records!
Genealogy Resources,  How To Trace Your Family Tree

Help! I Can’t Find My Ancestor In the Census Record!

Do you find yourself saying, “I can’t find my ancestor in the census?” Use these strategies and alternative genealogical records to find your missing ancestors.

You know your ancestor is supposed to be in that census record.  But…he/she is not. 

What happened? 

Did the census taker miss your ancestor in his rounds? Was your ancestor not home? Was your ancestor hiding out from the world? 

Or did the census record simply not survive for your ancestor’s location?

Any number of reasons could exist for why you are not finding an ancestor in a particular census.

If this happens to you – and it will! – as a researcher, you DO HAVE OPTIONS. 

Genealogy researchers utilize substitute or alternative records to continue the search for ancestors who fail to appear in a census records.  This is a common practice for researchers as they research around the loss of the 1890 census records.

Having trouble finding your ancestor in the census records? Try these alternate genealogy records!  Collage of antique photos

Census Records Substitutes for the “I Can’t Find My Ancestor in the Census!” Syndrome

Before you throw your hands up in despair and declare, ” I can’t find my ancestor in the census record!” , let’s take a close up look at  some alternative records you can use instead.

Tax Records or Lists

I may not like having to pay taxes, but I do like the fact my ancestors paid taxes, because paying taxes meant the creation of records I can search. Tax records are some of my favorite records to use when tracking my ancestors. With tax records, genealogy researchers can track an ancestor year by year as opposed to decade by decade as with the census records.  Even when I find my ancestor in the census record, I still turn to the tax records.

Tax records for I can'r find my ancestor in the census
Example of Tax List

The tax records for a county or state listed everyone who paid taxes. Since the county and state needed money to run, they kept a listing of those paying taxes and what tax they paid. 

Keep in mind that a tax record is not a complete listing of all individuals in the community like a census, but a listing of only the individuals paying taxes. 

To make the most of the tax records for your research, you must understand who was required to pay taxes and what was being taxed for the year and location you are researching. For instance, your ancestor my not appear in a tax record because he aged out of the requirements. In some locations, clergy were not required to pay certain taxes, so will not appear on the list.  So, it is important to understand who should and should not appear in these lists.

City Directories 

Like tax records, city directories can help you track your ancestor not just in the census years. In the absence of the census, seek out city and local directories.   Directories date back to just after the Revolutionary War and continue to be used today.  They have evolved and changed over the years, but continue to be a fantastic alternative to census records. 

Find things such as these in a city directory:

You’ll find this reader tip helpful:  If your ancestor(s) lived in a small rural community, check the closest larger town’s directory. Small, outlying communities were sometimes included in larger city directories. 

Voter Registration Lists

For your ancestor who was eligible to vote, voter registration lists can be an excellent source of information when you simply can’t find your ancestor in the census. Some voter registration lists can provide quite a lot of detail on the individual. Even if you find your ancestor in the census record, include these lists in your research for more detail and clues on your ancestor.

Here is an example of a page from the Chicago, Illinois voter registration for 1892:

1892 Sample of Chicago, Illinois Voter Registration List

Besides the individuals listing, information on residence, birth place and age, and naturalization is included.  

Just like the tax lists, voter registration lists are not a full listing of everyone in the community.

Military Lists

Lists of various military units, bounty land recipients and veterans/pensioners can all serve as partial substitutes for a census record. Even if you are only able to place your ancestor in a place and time, that alone makes a military list a good census substitute.

Example of William Adwell Confederate record

Have a Revolutionary War pensioner in your family tree but can’t find them in the census in 1840? You will want to add A Census of Pensioners for Revolutionary or Military Services  to your genealogy toolbox. It’s FREE  on Google Books, and you can learn why I use and  how I use Google Books HERE.

 Special Non-Population Schedules

Special schedules were other lists collected at the time of the regular population census. Types of schedules varied quite a bit over the decades. If you are unable to locate your ancestor on the population census, research the special schedules for that year. Types of special schedules include:

Example of the Defective, Dependent and Delinquent Schedule.
Excerpt from the 1880 DDD schedule for Panthea Elliott of Mecklenburg County, VA
  • Mortality Schedule (1850 – 1880)
  • Slave Schedule (1850 – 1860)
  • Indian Schedules (1880, 1900, 1910)
  • Now it’s Your Turn!

    Can’t find your ancestor in the census record? Explore one of the alternative records above. 

    Have a favorite census substitute record not listed? Share it in the comments below!

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      • LisaL

        Kris, the tax records I use are typically at the state archives and much older. Each state will have different privacy laws, so just check with the archives in state where your ancestors lived.

    • Shirley Crampton

      I don’t have another substitute but a reminder that you may be looking in the wrong place. I was unable to find my 3rd great grandfather in the Canadian census although his daughter and son-in-law who lived beside him were enumerated. I searched using all kinds of wildcards and different sites but never found him. A couple of years later a person unrelated to me or the grandfathers shared a letter that had been shared with him by a relative of mine. Through this letter I learned that my 3rd great-grandfather was travelling in England at the time of the census. I was able to find him in the census there and found his exact birthplace in the census. I would not have found his birthplace in the corresponding Canadian census.

    • Bonnie Miller

      I was so excited when the 1940 Census records were released. It would be the first time my name was on a census record. I was very sad when my aunt was listed as my Mom and she was also listed with my grandmother as was my Mom. So anyone looking for Blake Vance in Pendleton County, WV, will find his wife listed as Gay instead of Blanche. So we can’t always believe what is in a census record.

    • Lorr Campton

      We also need to remember that spellings of last names were often written phonetically by the census taker, it is only in our modern computer age that a spelling is considered to be exactly the same every time. This is especially common with immigrants with a heavy accent who could not read or write English.

      It is possible to do a first name search if you know the location along eith a year of birth. A family member with an unusual name may make this easier if you are looking for a John or Mary.

      Present day, we often get mail with our name mistakenly changed to Chapman. The Comptons were in the same location in 1790, 1800, 1810 and 1830. I couldn’t find them in 1820. One day it occurred to me to check the 1820 census for Chapman, and there they were. Its a two hundred year old mistake! So be creative in the spelling of the name you seek, it may pay off.

      Lisa, thanks for your newsletters, I look forward to reading them!

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