US census records are fantastic resources for finding American ancestors, providing the building blocks to uncover family history over the pond. Here's how to search them
US censuses are actually a mandatory part of the US Constitution, put in place to record every household and person living in the United States and collect various pieces of data associated with each. The first US census was in 1790, and since the census is mandatory, there's a very likely chance that your American ancestors were recorded during their time in the United States. The census occurs every 10 years and to protect the privacy of US citizens, the census records are released 72 years after they're recorded (unlike the 100 years that needs to pass in the UK). That means the 1950 census will be released in 2022. But that also means that, as of today, you can potentially find your ancestors using the US census records all the way back to 1790. Scroll down for our top 9 tips for getting the most from this fantastic genealogical resource.
US Census enumerator with the head of household in AlaskaImage via Library of Congress
1. Remember Your Timelines
Before you embark on any census searches, it's a good idea to get organised offline; the information you have and what you're hoping to learn. It can be helpful to create some basic timelines too. For example, if you know that your great grandfather was born in the United States 1895, then it is likely he would appear in the 1940 census since he would be around 45 years old. But if your ancestor was born in 1840, then he/she won't likely appear in the 1940 census, so it's important to have your timelines in front of you so that you don't accidentally search the wrong census, which can happen to the best of us. The timelines will be the most important when searching for your female ancestors because prior to getting married the census records will have your ancestor listed by her maiden name, so it's important to be clear with those timelines so you don't search by the incorrect surnames.
2. Search Censuses One at a Time
You want to make sure that you tackle each census record individually. Some census records are easier to navigate than others, and some will provide more detail than others. What's most important is that you record and take note of all the information you can get from one census before moving on too quickly to the next one. In other words: calm down, dear! You will want to record what you find in each census, and on the other hand, what you can't find, this will help you know which records to search for next and keep you focused on what you're actually looking for. It's easy to get distracted in genealogy research, but by restricting yourself to searching one census record at a time, you'll likely stay more focused and productive overall.
TIP: It's best to use our A-Z search to search each US Census record individually. Go to our A-Z search here. Then selected the United States then search "Census" with the year your're looking for in the search box.
Use "Census" plus the year you're looking for in the search box
3. Start With the Most Recent
It's generally best practice to start with the most recent documents and move backwards from those. It's always easiest to tackle what you know and begin to build your family's history and unique story that way. Also, modern records can often be easier to navigate, analyse and search because the language will be more familiar and the handwriting easier to decipher.
4. Use Name Variations
Unfortunately, the enumerators weren't perfect record takers. They were required to go house to house, door to door, to record all the census data by hand. When one person is tasked with such a job, mistakes are inevitable, plus the enumerator was in charge of recording what was told, not verifying those facts. The enumerator would ask each head of household the series of questions and fill the information accordingly, so if your ancestor was illiterate, for example, or maybe even just tired from a long day of work, he/she may have spelled their name incorrectly, or given incorrect answers by mistake. It was also common for the neighbours or children to give the information about the household, which can cause plenty of mistakes! Just think about it, could you provide details about every member of your neighbour's household? We couldn't.
In addition to simple mistakes in transcription or reporting, names change, people use nicknames, and sometimes people lied. It's always a good idea to search name variants if your searches are yielding any solid results. Your ancestor may have started going by his or her middle name or a nickname. Again, it wasn't the enumerator's job to verify the facts. For example, this man's name was Edison Donovan Boyd and in the 1900 census, when he was only 5 years old, he was listed as "Edison D Boyd," but later in the 1920 census, he's listed as "Donovan E. Boyd," so be careful! Use wildcard strategies (replacing letters with asterisks to account for alternative spellings) and name variants to find who you're looking for.
The 1900 census where my great grandfather was "Edison D. Boyd"
The 1920 census where my great grandfather was "Donovan E. Boyd"
5. Keep Note of the Neighbours
Keeping the last tip in mind, neighbours can potentially reveal a lot of information about your family. If you can't find your family, try searching for your family's neighbours. If your family was on vacation, for example, it's possible your neighbours were asked about your household and it's also possible the enumerator recorded your ancestors under their household. The records are only as good as the reporter and the recorder.
6. Enumerators Worked in Household Order
If you're struggling to find your family in the records, it is possible there was a mistake in recording the information from either the head of household or the enumerator, so a basic search might not yield any results. It's important to keep in mind that the enumerators worked in household order, so if you've been tracking their neighbours, it's useful to search for them to find your family in the original images of the documents. There's a possibility that your family is on the original image, but the pencil has been smudged or that the writing is illegible and just wasn't recorded properly. Just because they aren't coming up in the search doesn't necessarily mean that they're missing. Plus, the pagination could be mis-recorded so it's possible that the pages are out of order, so if you find your ancestor's neighbours, look closely at the original image and those surrounding that image to get to the bottom of the mystery.
The household numbers are listed on the far left hand side
7. 1890 Census
If you're struggling to find your ancestors in the 1890 census, you're not alone. Back in January of 1921, there was a terrible fire in the Commerce Department Building, which led to significant damage to the 1890 census. Unfortunately, the 1890 census was outside of the fireproof vault and it is estimated that 25% of the records were destroyed by the fire and that 50% of the remainder were damaged by water (from putting out the fire) and smoke. To make matters worse, after much arguing about salvaging the records, US Congress authorised the destruction of many of the remaining documents. Not all hope is lost, though, it is definitely worth searching because, despite the destruction of the majority of the records, there are still over 6,000 records to search.
8. Start Broad
If you've been struggling to pull up search results for your ancestor, there's a possibility you're trying to search using too much, too soon. Start your searches broadly, using only names and/or birth dates and/or by location. It's not super intuitive, but more information isn't always the better. Sometimes one fact may be transcribed incorrectly or perhaps the head of household made a mistake and so that could mean that the search engines wouldn't necessarily pick that information up. Start with a broader search, then narrow based on the number of results you're getting.
9. Study the Image
For the census records, it's always important to study the original image because there's often much more detailed information in the image than is included in the transcription. Generally, your ancestor's occupation is included in the census, but that information doesn't make it into the transcriptions. Also, if your ancestor's birthplace seems odd on the transcription, the image can reveal an enumerator's mistake or an error in interpreting handwriting. Always be diligent in verifying the sources yourself.The US census records contain a wealth of information for anyone in their genealogy research. If you've already searched them, it's always a great idea to search again because as you become a better researcher, you may discover more by looking into the records another time.