Censuses are a key resource for genealogists. The U.S. censuses were taken every 10 years starting in 1790. First thing, genealogy newbie’s ask is “Where is the 1890 census?” It was destroyed in a fire in Washington DC. in 1921. The more recent censuses 1940 to the present are not available to the public for privacy reasons. The rule is after 72 years the census becomes available. The 1940 census will be accessible in 2012, but will require indexing before it can be searched by name.

While we all love to look at copies of the handwritten “original” censuses, imagining the census taker talking to our ancestor and then writing the information down. Surprise! Those are not the originals. Two copies were made of the original, one for the US government and one for the state, and then the original was destroyed. The census takers, or enumerators to use the technical term, were paid 10 cents a head in the old days to take the census.

Occasionally, if the states or localities did not destroy their copy, you can find a reproduction on the state or local level. That is why a limited number of 1890 censuses can be found. Other censuses have been lost or accidentally destroyed as well. Several early New Jersey censuses are gone. After an unsuccessful search of the US 1820 Grafton County, New Hampshire census, I found out that the whole census for that county was missing, and was probably lost or accidentally destroyed.

You can see the potential for mistakes here, besides losing the census. The census taker; paid by the head, takes the census, it is copied, and the modern day transcribers try to decipher the handwriting for it to be indexed. There is an old New England saying, which may have started when speaking of census takers, and it is not particularly flattering – “Good enough for government work.”

Not to put all the blame census takers, as those early ones had to go farm to farm in rough conditions, the people being asked may not have given the best information either. When the census was taken, who were they talking to? Did the enumerator talk to the head of the household, his wife, or children, or even neighbors? While they probably tried, they may not have always given the most accurate information.

Despite all of that, the census is a great resource but check as many census years as you can for your ancestor. Then you will be able to judge if some of the information is a little or a lot off.

First, you will need census forms which are available, free, at: . These are essential for searching Heritage Quest in particular as there is often no key at the top of the page. Then you will know what those marks on the census forms mean.

To keep from getting lost before you even start, you might want to check to see where your ancestors actually lived. County lines move, counties, divide, appear and disappear, state lines move and new states form. You might have to check several localities to find your ancestors. They may have lived in more than one state, more than one county, and more than one town without ever having moved. Another good resource for finding towns and obscure historical sites is Also check that covers all of the censuses, not just 1930. You can see a map of the US for each census year in addition to a lot of information about the censuses including which questions were asked each year. They also give census-searching tips.

There are several places where you can search the census. They are; Familysearch pilot, Heritage Quest, , and

Some are free, like for the 1880 census. Familysearch also has a new pilot program where you can search most of 1850 and subsequent censuses. It is not complete yet as but more is being added all of the time, so check back. This is a very new feature, so those of you who have given up on Familysearch because of errors, try this as you will see photocopies taken from the source. To get to the pilot, click “searches” at the top of the page and then click the “Search Record Pilot.” Most of the copies of the handwritten censuses are free.

Familysearch uses Soundex as do the subscription services that you pay for like Ancestry. You can see handwritten records and you can check the Soundex option if you wish. Soundex will find not only the name that you are searching for, but also similar sounding variations of that name. This is especially important for those misspelled names like Chanler, Chandlor, Chandeler, etc. for Chandler. While Soundex is great, it cannot find everything – Stoddard turned into “Diddard” for example or Ezekiel Chandler turned into “Auel” Chandler.

Don’t forget that some of your ancestors may have used initials or some of the census takers might have recorded initials instead of first names. So check those, too. Another thing that really can throw one for a loop is when your ancestor did not use his given first name, but his middle name or nickname.

The nice thing about Familysearch’s “Search Record Pilot” program is that there are many options that you can click to further narrow down your search. When you first click where your ancestor lived you will usually get a lot of options right away, worldwide options. Take Rome, New York for example. If you just type in “Rome” you will get several New York Romes in addition to the Romes that exist worldwide and the original Rome. Sometimes a city will start out in one county and end up in another so you may need to check more than one.

Now let’s say you’ve gotten many “William Chandlers” for your Familysearch pilot search. You can narrow it down by “Collection” click that and you can choose which census you are after, then choose again to narrow the search by decade, then click again for more options.

If your ancestors came from a small town you can just type in the last name, Chandler for example, for your search and the town. Then you can narrow your search from there. Or, if you want to know who was living in a particular place, just fill in the name of the town and get everybody. If it is not too long a list, you will be able to check the whole list especially the “C’s” to see if Chandler, for example, showed up, mangled beyond Soundex’s ability to find. This will work for both the Familysearch pilot and Heritage Quest.

Heritage Quest is another fine source, often free on line from your local library; if your local library does not offer it there is a list of libraries that provide Heritage Quest at; Many records, books and resources are available through them in addition to the censuses. The censuses that they have are complete with the exception of 1930. The 1830-1850 censuses are not indexed so you cannot search them. For those censuses, except for some of the 1850 census available on the Familysearch pilot, you will have to go to the subscription services like Ancestry and Footnote.

The disadvantage to HQ is that the spelling has to be exactly the same as the transcriber transcribed it. No Soundex. However, you can use different search techniques and tools for HQ than you can for the Familysearch pilot. You can get a quick list of the Chandlers in a particular, state, or census. You can break your search down further by county, age, gender, birthplace, etc. You can get some of these things on the Familysearch pilot, but not the short, quick lists. You have to wade through more info and click more boxes. As their search criteria is not the same, you can check both.

Another trick which will work for both Familysearch pilot and HQ, is when you are stumped trying to find the birthplace of say, your ggg-grandfather. Let’s say that you found him in censuses prior to 1850 along with his children, including your gg-grandfather. The 1850 census would have given ggg-grandfather’s birthplace, but you can’t find him in that census or any subsequent censuses. Maybe he died.

Now you are stumped. You have hit a brick wall. Then a light bulb goes off in your head, just search the 1880 census and that will give the birthplace of your gg-grandfather’s and his parents! Excellent plan! The year 1880 was when the parents’ birth states or countries were also listed. Then you remember, gg-grandfather died in 1878. He would not appear in the 1880 census. Is a census search hopeless now? No, gg-grandfather had siblings. Trace those siblings to the 1880 and beyond and you should find out where ggg-grandfather was born.

The following are especially helpful tricks when you are looking for ancestors in states that weren’t part of the original 13 colonies especially the Midwest. They were frontier states at one time and in many places, the records were sketchy. Sometimes as in the case with several of our Chandlers, they tried out a frontier state, or later on tried homesteading, but changed their minds and went home.

Let us say you are looking for your ancestor and cannot find him. Soundex and alternative spellings were no help. If it was a later census and you also know the children’s names, try searching one of them. If one of the children had a very uncommon first name, try just a first name search, no last name. A common name will give you an unwieldy number, but if you can narrow down your search area it could work. Say the sibling’s first name was “Wentworth.” You can just look up that first name in the census year that you are researching. Narrow down your area of search if need be. Your ancestor may have moved to another state, then moved back to his home state and remained there in subsequent censuses. You may get a surprise, your family that you always thought came from Ohio, spent several years in Kansas, maybe homesteading or working, then returned to Ohio. Or, you will find “Wentworth” spelled correctly and right in the town that you expected him to be in along with his parents and siblings, but the last name mangled in a way you never thought of.

This trick will work both for Family Search Pilot and Heritage Quest.
I was stumped trying to find my great-grandparents in 1910 census. I tried looking under various spellings. No luck. Then I remembered that my gg-grandmother might have been living with them. I typed in her name and bingo! There she was and there were my great-grandparents, my grandmother, and great aunt. My great grandparents surname was misspelled and the birth state was wrong for my great-grandfather to boot.

Now you have exhausted all of the free sources. You really need those 1830 to 1840 censuses or the 1930 census. That’s when you have to pay to get the information that you need, unless your library has them available free. That’s where Ancestry and Footnotes comes in. The advantage to these services is that the censuses are complete. You get the 1830-1850 censuses and all of the 1930 censuses. They are searchable with Soundex and you do not need the forms to use as a key to figure what the columns represented to search them. Also, if you tried to search the censuses several years ago and were discouraged by a murky, unreadable copy, be aware that they are in the process of cleaning them up so that they are readable. Therefore, it is worth going back for another look.

Those are some of the reasons why we cannot always plug in the ancestor’s name and get results. If you persist and get creative with your search and check more than one source, you may find your ancestor

Many other states and countries conducted censuses as well. Try for a list of not only US censuses, but international censuses as well as alternatives such as the US Mortality schedules. Familysearch101 also lists census alternatives. I believe, William Dollarhide has written at least two books on the censuses. The first is on the census and the second on census alternatives.

So if you keep looking you may find that elusive ancestor counted somewhere. Happy hunting and successful searching.


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