Tips on Using The United States Census Records

Tips on Using The United States Census Records

Building your family tree can be the exciting part when conducting genealogy research. Many resources are available to you. Using the United States census records can greatly help you with this activity.

Tips on Using The United States Census Records

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.

Discussed in this post:

  1. Before I Give You My Tips!
  2. What If I Cannot Find My Ancestor?
  3. How To Search A little Closer
  4. There’s A Mistake In These Records
  5. United States Census Records Lead To Other Areas of Research
  6. Where Can I Find These Records?

Further Information!

After reading this helpful guide you may want to check out further information regarding US Census Records.

Why not head on over to the United States Census Bureau for help with your genealogy research.

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Express Your Thoughts Below!

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Before I Give You My Tips!

Before I 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.

What Can You Learn From US 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 their profession or why did they move around the country.

The census records 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.

Please watch this!

Check out the following 6-minute video courtesy of Ancestry. It will show you how you can use this genealogy site to access the many census records that it contains.

Credit: Ancestry

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.

What If I Cannot Find My Ancestor?

But what if you cannot find your ancestor in these records?

What do you do?

Don’t worry, there is hope!

Well, please do not give up hope.

There are several 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 efficient 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 in 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 you search for them by entering their middle name. One of my ancestors went by his middle name John for the early part of his life.

Afterward, he reverted 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 find 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 another 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 backward

The best tip here to finding your ancestor in the census records is to start at the most recent records and work your way backward.

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.

Searching For 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.

Ways to search a little closer:

Search relevant censuses

This is a no-brainer. You 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.

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 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 These Records

Often when you search through the census records you will find that something just doesn’t add up.

Mistakes In Genealogy


This may be conflicting data recorded from one census to another or just something that doesn’t make any sense at all.

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 the best guess of what has 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.


I also made a 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 lie on an official document. This may have been for many 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.

Other areas of research

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.

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 may be 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, stonemasons, 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 These Records?

Several options are available for you when it comes to checking out the United States census records.

Where can I find 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.

Your FREE option!

Searching through a FREE website online will 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.

These 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 FindMyPast, 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.

Best Genealogy Sites

Check Out The Best Genealogy Sites!

My Final Thoughts!

The census records are 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.

Learn as you go!

When I first got interested in my 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 have any questions or comments then please leave a comment below.

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Article Name
United States Census Records Tips
The United States Census Records are a goldmine of information. There's so much that you can learn from them. Let me show what you can uncover in this guide.
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The Genealogy Guide
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