Tips on Using The United States Census Records

By | June 19, 2017

Building your family tree can be an exciting part of your genealogy research. And using the United States census records can greatly help you with this activity. However, what happens if you cannot find your ancestor in these records or something just doesn’t add up? Well, read on and I will give you tips and tricks on using this vital tool for the genealogist.

Tips on Using The United States Census Records

Before I give you my tips!

Before I actually help you and give you tips that I have picked up I just wanted to share something with you. The census records are a great way to help you build your family tree as I have just pointed out.

But once you have searched for your ancestors and found them in the censuses then I urge you to look a little closer. Only by doing so will you see their story.

–> Check Out What You Can Learn From The US Federal Census Records <–

Genealogy is all about collecting information such as names, dates, places and so on. But family history is all about the stories.

Look a little closer and discover why your ancestor changed profession or why did they move around the country. The censuses do bring up more questions for you to ask and can help you explore other areas of your ancestors’ lives that you did not think about before.

Credit: Ancestry

Topics discussed in this post:

  1. What if I cannot find my ancestor?
  2. How to search a little closer into the United States census records?
  3. There’s a mistake in the United States census records
  4. United States census records lead to other areas of research
  5. Where can I find the United States census records?

What If I Cannot Find My Ancestor?

Seeing your ancestor in the United States census records, (or any other record for that matter), can be exciting. Believe me I have been there. It is great to see their name and read what information there is about him or here. But what if you cannot find your ancestor in these records? What do you do?

What If I Cannot Find My Ancestor?

Well, please do not give up hope. There are a number of tips that I can show you that will help you find that ancestor that seems to be hiding from you. By learning or referring to these tips you will make searching for your ancestor not only easier but also more efficiently as well.

Tips to help you find that missing ancestor:

  • Try different spellings – Your ancestor’s name will most likely have been recorded differently for all sorts of official documents and records. So try and think out of the box and spell your ancestor’s name differently. I have had great luck with this tip. I have found my ancestors by typing in “Cauch” and “Cooch”, even though my surname is Couch
  • Search for the first name or surname – If you know which county that your ancestor was living at the time of the census record then you may wish to search for them by just entering their first name or their surname. This is particularly helpful if their name is uncommon in the area.
  • Search using their middle name or a nickname – You may find your ancestor if yo search for them by entering their middle name. One of my ancestor’s went by his middle name John for the early part of his life. Afterwards he reverted back to his first name David. Searching for a nickname is another great tip. So you could try searching for your second great grandmother Elizabeth by entering “Lizzie” instead.
  • Use a wildcard – Using a wildcard, i.e. an asterisk, is another great way to finding your ancestor. So for my surname I could search for CO* and I would get results not only for Couch but also Cooch, among others
  • Try to use initials in your search – If the above fails then maybe your ancestor was not listed with their full name but rather initials instead. Try searching for them this way.
  • Maiden name and married name – Your male ancestors are pretty easy to find because their surname will likely have remained the same. If you know your female ancestors’ maiden name then enter this to find them before they got married.
  • Search for other family members – If you still cannot find your ancestor then you may have luck by looking for their sibling or other family member instead. On the date of the census they may have been living with them instead of their family home. So it’s worth checking this line of research.
  • Work your way backwards – The best tip here to finding your ancestor in the census records is to start at the most recent records and work your way backwards. You will most likely know more about recent times rather than earlier in your family’s history. So use what you know and work your way up the family tree.
  • Try a different genealogy search website – Your last best bet is to use a different genealogy search website if the first one turns up no results. I have found a number of my ancestors by going to a different site and searching there instead.

If you are still struggling to find that elusive ancestor of yours then you may want to look a little closer into the records. Your ancestor may be in the records but you just need to pay a little more attention to the information that is in front of you.

Searching For Records

Ways to search a little closer:

  • Search relevant censuses – Obviously this is a no-brainer. You obviously want to just concentrate on the censuses when your ancestor was alive. With each different census there was different information to be gathered from these. My The Basics of US Census Records post lists what information you can expect from these census records
  • Families with the same surname – While researching you may encounter other family groups who have the same ancestor. I must point out that I did waste some time on a family group who I thought were my ancestors. It was only after closer inspection did I discover that they were in fact not even my ancestors at all. So pay close attention.
  • Loot at the original document – By looking at the original document you may discover other information to which you can use, (besides what was recorded). By doing so you can find records such as immigration or naturalization, or military.

There’s A Mistake In The United States Census Records

Often when you search through the census records you will find that something just doesn’t add up. This may be conflicting data recorded from one census to another, or just something that really doesn’t make any sense at all.

Mistakes In Genealogy

So why would there be errors in an official document? Well there are many reasons for this as I will point out below.

Why are there errors in the census records:

  • The enumerator – It is often the case that the enumerator entered the wrong information. This could be because they have got their information from a neighbor or maybe your ancestor wasn’t even sure themselves.
  • Index errors – A similar human error could be that the records have been indexed incorrectly.
  • Were your ancestors foreigners – Following on from the first point it may have been the case that the enumerator did not understand your ancestor because English was not their first language.
  • Transcription errors – Often when these census records have been transcribed and uploaded to the Internet there is quite likely the possibility that errors will creep in. This can largely be due to the illegible handwriting of the enumerator. The transcriber will then have to make a best-guess of what has actually been recorded.
  • Different spellings – I have touched upon this earlier in the post. Your ancestor may have appeared under different names and so there can be some confusion when it comes to searching for them. Luckily standardization of spellings was introduced in the 1900s which will make your job of finding them a little easier for more recent records.
  • Nicknames – I also made note about this earlier. Your ancestor may have gone by their nickname, and this may have occurred in these official documents. So you may have an ancestor listed as “Lizzie” instead of Elizabeth, or “Jack” instead of John.
  • Your ancestor lied – Yes, it may have been the case that your ancestor did in fact lie on an official document. This may have been for a number of reasons. For example, they may not have wanted people to have known their real age.
  • Your ancestor is missing – Another reason why you cannot find your ancestor for a particular census is that they were not present when the census was taken. Although frustrating as this may seem this case needs to be considered. This has occurred for one of my ancestor’s unfortunately.

United States Census Records Lead to Other Areas of Research

Discovering your ancestor in these census records will most likely mean that you will find them in other documents, certificates and any other kind of records. The information that you find out here will not only help you to build your family tree but will help you learn more about them from different sources.

Other areas of research

Where next can you look for more information:

  • Birth certificate – The census records can tell you where your ancestor was born and also in what year. There maybe some inconsistency here when it comes to the year of birth but you can use the dates that you find as a guide to help you find their birth certificate.
  • Marriage certificate – Another certificate that you can track down is your ancestor’s marriage certificate. Using the “Number of years married” question on both the 1900 and 1910 censuses you can narrow down when your ancestors married and so you can track down their marriage certificate.
  • Divorce or widow – The 1880 census through to 1930 asked for the marital status. From this you can track down when your ancestor was divorced or when they died and get these certificates.
  • Your ancestor’s siblings – For me I like to find every sibling of my ancestors. The 1900 and 1910 censuses can help you immensely with this line of research. The questions “Mother of how many children” and “Number of those children living” can help you find out whether you have accounted for every sibling of your ancestor.
  • Immigration records – The United States census highlights whether your ancestor was born in or outside of America. You can therefore use this information to track down your ancestor’s immigration records.
  • Occupation records – Finding out what your ancestor did for a living can be an exciting discovering, especially if that line of work was carried out through the generations. This is particularly true for a number of my family tree branches. There have been generations of shoemakers, coal miners, stone masons and mariners as well.
  • Military records – The census records also highlight whether your ancestor was in the military or not. You can use this information to find their military records. You can learn where they served, what rank they achieved, any awards, and so much more.

Where Can I Find the United States Census Records?

There are a number of options that are available for you when it comes to checking out the United States census records. What I do urge you to do though is check out the FREE option before you spend any money at a genealogy search website.

Where can I find census records

Your FREE option!

Searching through a FREE website online will obviously mean that you can save your money which can be used for other areas of your genealogy research. The best site therefore to go to is FamilySearch. This site has over 3 billion names at present and millions of records.

There databases are continually growing. So if you do not find your ancestor in any of their records then you can always go back to the site and check again at a later time.

Your PAID options!

There are two PAID options that I want to bring to your attention. They are Ancestry and Find My Past, which you most likely have heard about. And rightly so because they also have millions of records in their databases and are continually growing as well. The advantage of these sites over FamilySearch is that even though you have to pay there will be more chance of you finding your ancestor in their databases.


Final Thoughts

The census records really is one of the primary sources of information for the family historian. They can help you build your family tree by helping you name your ancestor. And also you can learn vital details along the way, such as where they were born, where they were living, their occupation and so on.

But trying to find your ancestor in these records is not always easy. When I first got interested in my own family history I wasn’t sure how to search the census records and really what I was hoping for when I found an ancestor. And did I find every census record for my ancestor was always on my mind.

Finding everything about my ancestor was and still is important to me. I like to know all that I can about my ancestor. I like to be thorough. So if you are struggling to find your ancestor then I do hope that you take my advice and use the tips that I have shared with you in this post.


Thank You and Please Leave A Comment

I hope you enjoyed this post giving you tips on using these United States census records. If you think that this post will be helpful to others then please share it with friends and family using the social media buttons below.

If you have any questions or comments then please leave a comment below. I would love to hear from you.

Author: Owain

Hello, Owain here. After researching my family history for a number of years I wanted to give back to the genealogy world. So here you will find guides, tips and product reviews that will help you on your genealogy journey.

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