Black and white photo of woman taking census information from man ~1920

Get the Most Out of YOUR US Census Records Research

Get the most out of your US census records research! Find all the family history clues and make the most of your genealogy research.

Exploring the census records for your ancestors is one of the first things you do as genealogy researchers. US census records are readily available and found on the major genealogy databases of Ancestry.com, MyHeritage, and FindMyPast. If you are just starting your search for your ancestors, access census records for free at FamilySearch.org.

Are You New to US Census Records Research?

If you are new to genealogy and/or using US census records in your genealogy research, let’s review the basics.

  • The US census was first taken in 1790, and taken every 10 years thereafter.
  • The 1890 US census did not survive.
  • Census records for 1790 – 1950 (effective 1 April 2022) are available to the public for research.
  • The 1790 – 1840 census records name the head of household and all others are enumerated by tick marks/numbers in age categories.
  • Beginning in 1850, the census records record the names of all household members.
  • Additional schedules were created for varying census years. Two such schedules include the Agricultural schedules and Mortality schedules. Learn more about non-population census records in Is Your Ancestor In The Often Overlooked U. S. Federal Non-Population Schedules of 1850-1880?

Ancestors in the US Census Records

One of the challenges researchers run into first is actually finding an ancestor on a census record. There are lots of reasons we might lose an ancestor in the records.

To increase your chances of finding that hard to find ancestor try one or more of these seven (7) tips:

1. Do not perform a search for your ancestor’s exact name.

Don’t tell your school age children, but spelling doesn’t count in genealogy! Really.

It is not unusual at all to find multiple spelling variations for the same individual across the records. I found a dozen variations on the Howard surname including Harward, Haward, Herward just to name a few.

Consistent spelling of surnames and/or first names didn’t occur until well into the 1900’s. Add in the poor handwriting of the census taker, and well, it’s easy to see how names were transcribed incorrectly and not recognized by a researcher.

Keep in mind individuals may have gone by a name other than their “formal” name. If your ancestor went by a nickname, a middle name or by initials, include those in your search as well.

Early census taker dressed in coat and hat getting information from woman at door. Red box with white text reading Genealogy Research Census Tips
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2. Search in Alternate Locations

Include searches in neighboring counties and across state lines in your census research. Throughout history, county, state and other boundary lines evolved. Entire new counties were formed, some counties ceased to exist and some had their boundaries enlarged or decreased.  

As you search for your ancestor, recognize that your ancestors may have never physically moved, but they could be living in a new county if the boundary lines changed. 

As you search the census records, make sure you check across boundary lines.

3. Verify the Census Record for that Area Actually Exists

The destruction of the 1890 census is commonly known about by genealogy researchers. We must use alternate records to learn about our ancestors in 1890. 

Other census record losses did occur on a much smaller scale.

For example, I spent many hours trying to find my Halifax County, VA ancestors in the 1810 census only to discover that that particular census did not survive.  Further research revealed that the 1810 census did not survive for 18 VA counties. 

Research into the 1820 census revealed a known issue that census takers actually skipped entire communities in Halifax County, VA. (Source: Halifax County, Virginia, 1820 Census: A Comment,” The Virginia Genealogist, Vol. 3, No. 1 (Jan.-Mar. 1959):26)

Save research time and angst! Make sure the record actually survived.

4. Search for Your Ancestor’s Neighbors

Your ancestors did not live in a bubble. Major moves or migrations often happened alongside neighbors, other family members or within a faith community.

Family photo of Abraham Jacobs family

When you lose track of your ancestors in a census record, check for the neighbors. It’s possible you are not finding your ancestor(s) due to a spelling variation or inadvertent name change. Sometimes the cause is just bad handwriting that was not able to be transcribed well. 

Make note of the neighbors on the previous census record, and then search for them on the next one. You may find your ancestors are living next to them or close by. 

5. Search for Your Female Ancestor Under the Right Name

Finding female ancestors gets a little tricky sometimes. When searching for them in a census record, make sure you are searching under the right name. Was she still single? Search under her maiden name.

Was she married? Use her married name?

Now here is where it can get a bit tricky.  Did she have more than one marriage? If so, you will need to search for her under the new married name in those later census records.  It is entirely possible for your female ancestor to be enumerated in one census under her maiden name and then in the next census under her married name. We see this frequently.

If she was widowed young and then remarried, her third census appearance would be by a third name.

So, make sure you are searching for the correct name.

6. Study the Information in ALL of the Census Columns

It’s exciting to find ancestors in the census records! It can be the cause for a genealogy happy dance.

But take caution not to grab your ancestor and go quickly onto the next record.

Take your time and gather all of the information from each column. You will pick up clues to further your research and understand your ancestor better. 

Consider what that information is telling you about your ancestors. Ask yourself if that information can lead you to another record. An example would be information on naturalization. If the individual was naturalized, you know to seek out those records as well as possibly ship passenger records. 

What was your ancestor’s listed occupation? Consider if records for that occupation exists. 

7. Read the Census Pages BEFORE and AFTER the One Where Your Ancestor is Listed

As a rule, I typically read the 5 pages before and the 5 pages after the entry for my ancestors. 

Here’s why.

I am looking for other possible family members and close associates living close by. I am also getting to know the community and the surnames that were there.

This type of information can be useful in future research and helps to be able to recognize the community and what was important to the community as the research process moves forward.

Learn More About Using US Census Records in Your Genealogy Research

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