Not finding your ancestors in the census records? Find everything you need to know to get the most out of your census research.
Genealogy Research,  How To Trace Your Family Tree

What Everyone Ought To Know About Census Research

Everything you need to know to get the most out of your census research and find your ancestors. Your genealogy research will get a boost!

Census records are some of the first records genealogy researchers begin with.  Let’s face it.  Finding your ancestor on a census record – or even yourself in those census pages – gives you a little thrill. It’s like a mini-version of the genealogy happy dance!

Let’s get back to those census records for a little refresher. Whether you are a seasoned genealogy researcher or a brand new researcher, understanding the basics of census research is essential to finding your ancestors. 

While the examples in this post are from U. S. census records, the tips and strategies apply to your census research for any country.

5 Steps for Successful Census Research

1. Know the history of the census including when the census was taken and what was being asked.

The first U. S. census was taken in 1790 and subsequent censuses were taken every 10 years. The census records are kept confidential for 72 years to protect individuals’ privacy.  In the U. S. that means only census records for the years 1790 – 1940 are available for our genealogy research. Availability of census records for public research will vary in other countries.

Census records are important to your genealogy research! Make sure you are getting everything out of that census research.
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The 1790 – 1840 census years only record the head of the household – usually men, but could be a female – and all others in the family were enumerated as a tick-mark or number in specific age groups.  Beginning in 1850 all members of the household were enumerated. These have become some of genealogy researchers favorite genealogy records!

For U. S. researchers, learn more about the U. S. census in general as well as find the specific instructions provided to the census takers. I encourage you to take a little time and review the census takers instructions. You will better understand your ancestor’s information as recorded on the census record.

For example, in the “Race” column of later U. S. census years, the census taker determined a person’s race based on his visual assessment. In other words, the enumerated individuals were not stating their race for the record. This accounts for variations in race for an individual from one census year to the next.  Understanding how the race category is determined helps the you the researcher not missing your ancestor in the record.

Genealogy Pro Tip: Keep a blank census forms at your side when researching in the U. S. census records.  The records can be difficult to read at times, and having a clear copy of what each record will save you time, make you a more efficient researcher and decrease the risk of errors in your analysis.  Find blank U. S. census forms on the National Archives site (NARA).

1860 Census, Mecklenburg County, VA
1860 Census, Mecklenburg County, VA (Source:


2. Learn if any special schedules were created.

Special Schedules were created to collect additional information on the country’s population. The information found in a non-population schedule should not be overlooked. They contain valuable information on our ancestors.

The five types of special schedules  – also known as non-population schedules – useful to genealogy researchers  include:

1880 Agricultural Schedule
1880 Agricultural Schedule, Halifax County, VA [Source:]
  1. Agriculture – 1850 – 1880, 1885
  2. Manufacturing/Industrial – 1850 – 1880, 1885
  3. Defective, Dependent and Delinquent  – 1880
  4. Mortality – 1850 – 1880, 1885 
  5. Slave – 1850 – 1860

The Defective, Dependent and Delinquent schedule of 1880 has several parts, all useful for the genealogy researcher.

  • Schedule 2: Insane
  • Schedule 3: Idiots
  • Schedule 4: Deaf-Mutes
  • Schedule 5: Blind
  • Schedule 6: Homeless Children
  • Schedule 7: Prisoners
  • Schedule 7a: Pauper and Indigent

Note: The terminology used was the language of that time period.

Blank forms for the non-population schedules can also be found on the NARA website.

If you are performing your census research in a different country, check if they also created special schedules.


3. Perform Census Research Backwards

1790 Census
1790 Census, Campbell County, VA

Start your census research with the last record your ancestor appeared in. Once completed, move back to the previous record. If your ancestor is found in the 1940 census record, start there and then proceed to the 1930 census, then the 1920 census and so forth..  If possible, work backwards sequentially and do not skip a census year.

By tracing your ancestor in each census record he/she would have appeared in, allows you to move from the adult years to the childhood years of your ancestors. Finding your ancestor as a child in a household, places him/her within a family unit. While not guaranteed, that record can place a child in his/her parents’ household extending your family line back one more generation.

4. Read The Information in Every. Single.  Category.

Once you find your ancestor in a census record, do not just make note of him/her, any birth or marriage dates and move onto the next record. You will miss valuable clues about your ancestor AND clues leading to other family members and earlier generations

hand writing with pen

Take your time in your census analysis to read and understand the information provided in each column.  Beyond name and birth year or age, information such as birth place of both parents can be found. That bit of information can point to a location to began a search for an ancestor’s parents. An occupation provides potential clues to unique records for occupational organizations. Learning an ancestor owned land indicates you need to search land record and deeds.

The same concept applies to the special non-population schedules. Read every single column. For example, if your ancestor appears on the 1880 Pauper and Indigent schedule, that does not mean he/she lived in the county poor house. He/She could have been living in a family member’s home which is a valuable clue to you. The presence on the Pauper’s list simply indicates the individual was receiving assistance from the county for their care.


5. Look At The Neighbors

Before leaving your census research for a particular census year, look at your ancestors’ neighbors. Your ancestor was part of a community, and those individuals were important to your ancestor. These are the citizens they interacted with, worked with, worshiped with and married. It is not unusual to find family members and/or in-laws living close to your ancestor.  

Maddox Family
Maddox Family of Lee County, NC

Knowing whether a neighbor is a relative or not is not always apparent on your initial research. If not, do not worry.  Simply make note of who the neighbors are for future consideration.

Genealogy Pro Tip: Read the census record 3-5 pages prior to your ancestor’s listing and 3-5 pages after your ancestor’s listing.  These individuals represent your ancestor’s community. Make note of common surnames in the area and any patterns of migration into the area.  Again, you may find direct and collateral family members within the same census district, but several pages out.

When Your Census Research Does Not Go Smoothly

Census research does not always go smoothly for the genealogy researcher. The census takers were  humans. They could and did make mistakes.

For instance, the 1940 census taker for Halifax County, VA placed a neighbor’s daughter as the wife of my paternal grandfather. My grandmother appears no where in the 1940 census., but she  was very much alive and living with her husband and toddler!  We get a good laugh at that in our family, but that mistake could lead someone to make the erroneous assumption my grandfather had a second wife.

When you find information in the census that does not make sense, explore it more. Do not just accept it. 

Let’s talk about the spelling of your ancestor’s name…..

Often finding an ancestor in a census record is difficult because the name spellings were not consistent until well into the 1900’s. Add to that a census taker’s poor penmanship and your census search just got significantly harder.  Be open to various spellings of your ancestor’s name. Consider the possibility he/she is listed by first and middle initials or listed by a middle name. If you are still having difficulty finding your ancestor, try using the wildcard search option.

In the case where you are fairly sure your ancestor is within a certain area, read the census record page by page. Yes, this is time consuming and even a bit tedious, but it is well worth your effort. You become very familiar with that community and the individuals who make it up.  That information can benefit your future research!


Find More Help For  Your Census Research

Want to explore census research even more?  Check out some of my favorite resources!


Two of my favorite genealogy research books!


Many genealogy videos are available to help researchers hone their research skills.  Check these out for learning more about census research.

Now It’s Your Turn!

Start exploring the census for your ancestors!  Take your time in the records and do not rush your analysis. Your genealogy research will benefit greatly!

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