Finding Census Records for Ancestors
November 20, 2020
Last week I wrote about census records in general; this week I thought I would delve more specifically into finding someone in censuses.
As I wrote last week, finding ancestors in the various censuses can prove tricky. However, the vast majority of our ancestors really were enumerated all those years ago; it just may take a little thinking outside of the box to find them.
For many of us a census search merely entails plugging a name into a database and seeing what pops up. That may be a good starting point, but it’s better to take at least a few additional steps. Before even searching, it’s a good idea to make sure you know exactly what censuses an ancestor ought to show up in. It’s useless to search for an ancestor in the 1920 census if they weren’t born until 1922, for example. If you have already found some census returns for an ancestor, it’s helpful to tabulate them and see whether there are other censuses that he/she should have been enumerated in. A good rule of thumb is to try to locate each census for each ancestor in which they should have appeared since each census asked different questions and can provide different details about an ancestor’s life. Someone such as my paternal grandfather, who was born in 1874 and died in 1956, should thus show up in eight censuses. Two of them, the 1890 and the 1950, are not available to us currently – the 1890 because it was destroyed and the 1950 because it won’t be publicly available for another year and a half. This means that I can search for him in six censuses. Typically, the search should begin with the most recent census in which he would appear and then work backward to the earliest, as is done with most genealogical research. In some cases, a lack of information about later or earlier periods in someone’s life will guide the census search to a specific census. Once someone is found in one census, it’s important to follow through and locate them in others since families change over time.
Sometimes, such as in my grandfather’s case, this is fairly easy. Except for the 1880 census in which he was in Minnesota with his parents, he spent the rest of his life in South Weber, Utah, a small northern Utah community. In a couple of cases, a search online didn’t reveal my grandfather (he had an unusual, easily misspelled surname), but it was fairly simple to do a manual search of South Weber since it only had about 200 people in that era. The manual search showed my grandfather right where I thought he should be; an indexing error had “lost” him. Unfortunately, many of our ancestors were not as helpful as my grandfather in staying put in such an easy-to-search location. There are a number of strategies to help locate our elusive ancestors. One suggestion, before you even begin searching, is to read the Family Search Wiki pages on the United States Federal Census at https://www.familysearch.org/wiki/ . This will give you an overview of the censuses and suggest search strategies.
The censuses are notorious for misspellings and misinterpretations of our ancestors’ names, making it sometimes difficult to find a specific individual. The first step towards finding a “lost” ancestor is to be creative about how the ancestor’s name is spelled. If the ancestor has a first and a middle name, it is often helpful to search by his two names alternatively. You may find that someone used his first name in one census and his middle name in the next. Don’t forget nicknames; James often becomes Jim in the census. Women’s names are fluid, changing from a maiden name to a married name and sometimes even to later married names. Search for all of them.
If those strategies aren’t successful, one of my favorite techniques is to search by only one name – either a surname or a first name – in conjunction with other known data such as year of birth, place of birth and presumed location at the time of the census. For example, I was unable to find my great grandmother Mary Lindberg in the 1870 census even though I knew that she had immigrated to the United States from Sweden the year before and that she was living in Tunkhannock, Pennsylvania at the time of that census. After several fruitless searches, I remembered that Mary was most likely a servant in 1870, working for a family whose name I didn’t know. It seemed possible that she had been listed under their surname since family lore suggested she had traveled to the United States with her employer as a member of his family. I decided to search using just the first name Mary, along with her birth year and place of birth, which was Sweden. With that information, I had only two hits, one of which I was able to determine was “my” Mary. Although Mary was enumerated under a completely different surname than her own, this technique can be useful even if an ancestor was listed under his own surname, albeit with garbled spelling.
Searching for someone other than your own ancestor can also be helpful in some cases. If a sibling has a more unusual first name, such as my great aunt who was named Elila, it’s much easier to identify her in a census record than it is to find her brother Keith, who shared her very common surname. This strategy may also work even if the unusually-named relative is not living in the same household as the ancestor you’re seeking. Families often settled in the same neighborhood, so finding one sibling may lead to others nearby. In the case of Elila, she was still living in her parent’s household when I found her in 1910, but her brother Keith had married and was living five houses away – impossible to find with a simple search since the enumerator had completely butchered his surname. In general, once you have found an ancestor, checking several pages before and after his name is a good idea. It can reveal married sons and daughters, even if the daughters are using a different married name. Don’t forget to check out the neighbors, as well, who may be easier to locate in an earlier or later census than your own ancestor and may still be living near your ancestor.
One final hint about finding folks in the census: if you do find someone who has long been missing, please take the time to put a correction on the entry so that later searchers will be able to also find it. One of my ancestors was named Peter Terry; I knew that he was in Utah in 1870, but I couldn’t find him anywhere. Eventually, I did a line-by-line search of the county where I believed he was living. I eventually found him there as I’d suspected; the problem was that the enumerator had listed him under the name Peter Perry. Although there was only a one letter difference between the two names, a “P” would not usually be substituted for a “T” when searching. Most of the websites where you will find the censuses have a way to leave a note. The note will usually not make the incorrect name disappear, but it will allow someone searching under a name like Peter Terry to pull up the record that is incorrectly listed under Peter Perry. It only takes a minute to leave a note, and it can make the difference between finding someone or not to a future researcher.
Researcher/Director at Large