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You’ve come to the right place.
If you are an American researching your ancestral roots, then the US census is the first place to check.
Running from 1790 and collected every ten years, these exhaustive records are some of the richest sources of genealogical data.
They can be especially fruitful when you combine them with other ancestry research methods such as historical documents, city directories, and genealogical DNA testing.
But finding the information you are looking for is not a piece of cake.
This quick and simple explainer will help you in your search.
I’ll give you the census basics you need to know before you dive in, the best census search sites and how to wade through this goldmine of information to find what you are looking for.
There are a few census basics you need to know before you begin squinting at enumeration district maps and squiggly handwritten names.
You probably already know that the first census was in 1790 and the last one in 2010. The population-counting exercise takes place every ten years, and by law, citizens have to participate.
Interestingly, however, the latest census you can use is the one from 1940, not 2010.
This is because of the 72-year rule that prohibits public release of personally identifiable information from a census before 72 years are up. So specific personal details such as names, age, dates of birth and location – details that are invaluable during your ancestor lookup – are only released publicly after 72 years.
Microfilm images from the 1940 census were released in full on April 2nd, 2012, exactly 72 years after the official start date of the 1940 census. The 1950 census will be released in 2022. The 2010 census will be available for ancestor history research in 2082.
Your ancestor search will, therefore, span censuses from 1790 to 1940.
Note: You can still access your family records before 72 years are up. It requires making an application to the Census Bureau’s Age Search service. It costs $65 for a single search in one census.
The questions asked and type of data collected varies from census to census. For instance, from 1790 to 1810 only the name of the head of the house (usually a man) was noted with every other family member represented by ticks.
Starting in 1850, names of all free household members were included along with their age, sex, color, place of birth, property, marital status and other information. In 1880, the relationship of each household member to the head of the household was noted.
By 1940, the enumerator (census taker) recorded a lot more details including employment status; highest school level reached, income level and source and military participation.
The records were taken between 1880 and 1940 provide the richest source of genealogical data.
Research note: When researching your ancestors, there is a possibility you may not find them in the 1890 census. A fire in 1921 destroyed most of the records from that census. Only partial records are available in some states.
The primary source of census records is the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), who releases them after the mandated 72-year waiting period.
You can order microfilm – $125 each – from the National Archives and read the records yourself. There are also several websites that have indexed versions of all the publicly-released censuses. Most allow free ancestor lookups.
Other websites that have indexed some or all of the records (up to 1940) include archives.com and findmypast.com.
You can also check your local or university library for any census microfilms they may have.
The first thing you should do is read the site’s help page concerning the census records. They’ll often have a handy explainer telling you how to use the search feature to narrow down your search results.
The most important detail you should try to have is a name. It doesn’t have to be the specific name of the person you are looking for. A relative’s name can also lead you to person’s record.
Most sites have a name search feature. But not all censuses are indexed by name. For instance, the indexing of the 1940 census is still ongoing. Archives.gov’s 1940 index doesn’t allow a name search.
For sites where a name search is not possible or doesn’t give you the results you need, location details are your next best bet. Start with a state, select the county, narrow down to the city and finally the specific street.
You can also use the enumeration district (ED) number. For this, you need to know which enumeration district your search subject was in. Then use state and ED number to find the right record images.
Various websites provided advanced search options. At Ancestry.com for instance, you can also search by major event, family members such as spouses and siblings or just a relevant keyword.
The more information you have about your search subjects, the easier it will be to find them. That’s why it is a good idea also to use other non-census historical records to learn more about your ancestors. For example, if you have the city directory from that year (assuming you know the city they lived in), you can find an address and use it to narrow down your search in a census index.
So now you’ve found the record you were looking for. You’ve tracked them down to the city, street, and address they lived in and you’ve found their name or at least a relative’s name that can lead you to your search query.
The data won’t be in neat graphs and tables that you can comfortably read while drinking a cup of coffee. It will be in the form of images. They are digital scans of the original hand-written documents.
Scanning technology from then wasn’t the best, so the images are not always easy to read. It becomes even harder since most of the records are handwritten. Watch out for illegible writing, misspelled names and missing info.
When researching US census records the rule of thumb is to start with the latest census and then work your way backward.
If your research subject died in 1970, start with the 1940 census results. If they died in 1915, start with the 1910 census. If the date of death is 1888, the 1880 census should be your first stop.
That doesn’t mean that later censuses if there are any, are useless. Once you work your way backward through the censuses and find out all you can say about them, you can still come back to the remaining censuses for more information about other family members.
Before you sit down at your computer to read the records, there a couple of things you should have at hand (other than a mug of coffee – you are going to need it). They are a pen or pencil and a blank census form.
Make sure you use a form from the specific census you are researching. This is because the forms constantly changed depending on what kind of data was being collected that year.
Fill in the form exactly as it has been filled in the census records. Do not assume that detail is meaningless or that you’ll remember it. Even the small details may help you connect the dots later.
Also, make your notes alongside the copied records to help you remember certain details that you notice such as a neighbor with the same surname or an unusual detail about a family.
As you move from one census to another (backward of course), you’ll notice how your ancestors’ lives changed with time. It’s like backing up in a movie. One character starts off married; then they become single, then they are kids and so on.
Take note of these trends and make detailed notes. Look for changes in marital status, locations, number of family members, occupation and even names. They’ll help you put together an ancestral timeline.
Sometimes, however, supposed constants like age tend to change. In one census someone states their age as 50. In another census ten years prior they are 43. This is mostly because there were no exact age records at the time. The best people could do make educated guesses. Some even lied to get a certain job or get into the military.
Once you have looked through several censuses and other historical records such as the age of birth, you can often pinpoint their average age.
Genealogical research is akin to completing an information puzzle. Every little bit of new information can take you closer to a complete picture. Don’t limit yourself to the census when researching your family history. Census records should be among your first avenues but not your only one.
One valuable source of information is your family records. Go up in the attic and see what kind of old documents are there.Also, ask your relatives whether they have any other documents that can help.
Documents like birth and death certificates, pay stubs, land transfer records, court records, personal journals and business receipts can help you pin together a solid timeline of events.
Combine that with information from a census, and you can often fill in the missing gaps.
As I mentioned before, city directories can also help you find specific addresses to narrow down your search.
You can also check some surprising sources like old magazines and newspapers. Correlate major events reported in the news with dates and information in the census records, and you just might get somewhere.
If you are doing an extensive family search, it can be difficult to keep track of all the names, marriages and dates. An ancestor family tree can help.
The add each person you discover along with their details. It’ll then be easier to match individuals to each other as your family tree grows.
There are various family tree software programs you can buy. You can also use Ancestry.com’s family tree maker (requires a paid subscription).
In addition to the main censuses, there are several special schedules. They might contain the records you are looking for. Here are some of the extra censuses.
Do not limit your search just to your family members. Also, take down records of neighbors around where your search query lived.
A lot of times, neighbors turn out to be siblings or children who just live nearby. Other times, you’ll find that a family member or one of their children may have married a neighbor.
Even if there is no familial relationship, a neighbor’s record may lead you to someone living who may know something about your family.
Researching census records is not easy work. You’ll get tired quickly and may miss some things. Don’t give up if at first; you don’t find what you are looking for. Keep coming back again and again. A pair of fresh eyes and a clear mind may be just what you need to find that nugget that tells you the whole story.
I hope this guide has helped. Leave a comment with your questions, suggestions and ancestor search success stories. All the best in your quest.
I'm just another amateur genealogist investigating my American-Scots-Irish lineage. I built MyFamilyDNATest.com after buying all of the leading DNA tests to discover everything I could about my family history. Hopefully, this site will save you time and demystify the emerging science of DNA-based genealogy, for your family project.