Using US Census Records

US census records genealogy research and guidance.

U.S. Census records are usually the first place genealogists start when trying to locate an ancestor living in the United States.  The reason is that a serious attempt was made, by the government, to collect information for every person living in the United States at the time the census was taken. 

Therefore, if your ancestor was living in the U.S. during a census year, it is very likely that they will appear in census records.

These records are also popular because they are packed with valuable information including a person's age, where they lived, marital status, children, occupation, citizenship status, whether they could read or write and more depending on the year of the census.  There are not many other record sources that can top the information content of a census record.

US Census Records Background

The Census is mandated by the U.S. Constitution to be carried out once every ten years so that congressional representation and government funding can be applied fairly.  The first Census was taken in 1790.

Due to confidentiality laws, individual records are sealed for 72 years in order to prevent the release of an individual’s personal information during their lifetime.  Therefore, the most recent census that can be accessed for genealogy purposes is the 1940 Census.  

Although the U.S. Census records and genealogy data are a great tool for researchers, they have their limitations. 

The main problem is that the early censuses were conducted in person, door to door.  As you can imagine some families were missed, misspellings were common, and the information provided to the census taker varied based on the recollection of the family member available. 

Another problem is that the census is only take once every ten years.  Your ancestor could have come and gone in the years in between one census year and the next.

Pre-1850 records are of limited value as only the head of household was listed by name.  The presence of a spouse, children and slaves was denoted by numbers, not names. 

These early records bring you face-to-face with the reality of slavery and a dark period of US history where human beings were considered property.  These records can, however, help you track an ancestor to a specific place and time.

Finding US Census Records

If you have access to the web, the free option is to go to Click on the search icon and simply type the name of your ancestor in the search form and a census record will likely show up in the search results.

If you can’t seem to find an ancestor in a particular census, there are several things you can try before giving up.  First, you can try searching just the first couple of letters of the last name.  It is more likely that the census taker got the first part of the name right.  If you get lucky, you won’t have to dig through too many matches.

You can also try your search using popular misspellings of your ancestor’s last name.  It is a good idea to keep a running list of these misspellings and track of which ones you tried, so you don’t repeat your work.  Using the soundex option in your search might also be worth a shot.

Another thing you can try is not searching the last name at all.  If you have sufficient details on the wife or kids, try searching for their first names and see what you get.  Feel free to get clever with combinations of the search fields, using known data to narrow the field.

You could also search on the name of a neighbor of your ancestor, if you have that information.  Since the census was taken in person, it is somewhat likely that the record just above or below your ancestor was a next door neighbor or lived in close proximity.  If you can find your ancestor in an earlier census, you could try finding his neighbors and looking on that page and adjacent pages for your ancestor.  Neighbors might also be listed as witnesses on a marriage certificate or other documents.  This method is a bit of a long shot, but if you are desperate enough it might be worth a try.

If you are still stuck, it is probably time to move on.  Your chances of finding your ancestor in that census are slim and you are probably better off using your research time looking elsewhere.

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