Genealogy: 30+ Important lesson learned when researching the U.S. census

Lessons learnedBy Barry J. Ewell
Important clues and lesson learned when searching the U.S. census
The following are important lessons learned and clues I have learned when searching and mentoring others in finding success in the U.S. census.  You will find the following topics in this article:

  • Build a family profile
  • Know the difference between primary and secondary information
  • Look carefully who’s living next door
  • Search and extract information on persons with the same surname
  • Genealogy census tip: Keep a research log and cite your sources
  • Genealogy census tip: Misspelled names are ok
  • Finding missing ancestors
  • Finding evidence that ancestor served in the U.S. military
  • Look for cultural naming patterns
  • Look beyond just names and relationships
  • Searching online databases
  • Searching census with online/database search engines
  • Preparations before using a census
  • When questions arise in the census
  • First and middle names
  • Use the census to calculate the birth year of your ancestor
  • Be careful with age in the census
  • Focus on location
  • Search the original record
  • Make a alphabet “sampler” from actual census entries
  • Copy the way in which the census taker forms each letter
  • Search every line of the census district
  • Look carefully at other people with same surnames
  •  Search all individuals living in the same household
  • Search the state census
  • Search all of your ancestor’s siblings
  • Census closest to death can yield many records
  • Search every census taken during a person’s life
  • Search every census schedule
  • Study the ages of all family members in each census
  • Return to the census when you have more experience

Target 3Build a family profile. I make it practice to start with the information I already know or suspect about the family.  I refer to this as my family profile. The more you know the more options you have of correctly identifying and connecting the family one generation to the next. This is list that you will build and work with throughout your genealogy research. The information I like to include in my profile include:

  • Names of known and/or suspect family members
  • Relationships of known and/or suspect family members
    • Father (i.e., fathers, step-fathers)
    • Mother (i.e., mothers, step-mothers)
    • Children (i.e., brothers, sisters, step-children, adoptions)
    • Brothers’/sisters’ –in-law and their spouses (i.e. persons married to grown children of the family)
    • Grandparents (i.e. fathers’ side, mothers’ side, step-parents side)
    • Siblings of parents and their families (i.e., fathers’ side, mothers’ side, step-parents side and the members of their households)
    • Neighbors (i.e. names, surnames and family members)
    • Group (i.e., this could members of organization, church, etc.)
    • Boarders (i.e., persons living in the household but not family members)
    • Servants/slaves (i.e., persons who are identified as servants/slaves)
  • List of surname and variations (example: Ewell, Uhl, Youile, Yull, Yule, Zuile)
  • Locations of where known and/or suspect family members (i.e., towns, regions, states)
  • Locations of known and variations of the family surname (i.e., towns, regions, states)
  • List of documents I already have organized in a timeline format

Keep a research log and cite your sources. I can’t stress how important it is to keep a log of your research.  Document where you have been and what you have found.  Even when you haven’t found anything on your family, write it down. Good records become valuable in being able to correctly analyze you research and giving other researches a trail to follow.  See the article, ” Fifty-eight Downloadable PDF Forms to Help You Record Genealogy Research Findings.”

Finding evidence that ancestor served in the U.S. Military.  The following are few tips I have used to define if my ancestor might have served in the military during this period of time.

  • List all the wars that existed during the each ancestor’s life time and what age they were during the war.  As a rule of thumb the age range for soldiers during a war period is 16-60.
  • Look for clues that might be found on gravestones, family papers, obituaries, biographies.
  • Look where the ancestor lived. Does your ancestor live on what is referred to as the frontier (western most land) of the United States in the early 1800′? This might indicate that he received bounty lands.
  • Search indexes for military land patents and other military records. If you don’t find ancestor in one index, try another.  It is not uncommon to have ancestors who were veterans of multiple wars.


Know the difference between primary and secondary information. Remember the census taker asked questions to a residence of the household and answers were provided based on the knowledge of the person being asked.  The census includes both primary and secondary information.  Primary is the most reliable (i.e., location and address).  Secondary information is less reliable such as the memory of an individual which includes.  Secondary information in the census includes information such as names, head of house, ages, marital status, education, military service, birth place, occupation and citizenship.

Does it mean that it is bad information? No.  It simply means that it is based on the memory of one person and thus it is easy to see why information can vary from census to census.  That is why I strongly encourage genealogists to search out other documents, censuses, sources to build a case for the family you are documenting.  I have found most information provided on census records to be very reliable.

The areas where I see the most conflict/variation is in the ages and spelling of names. I have also found variations/inconsistency with information with answers to questions that are considered sensitive and individuals may not be comfortable giving answers. Some of the areas I have found include age, health and history (e.g., deaf, dumb, blind, idiotic, insane, conflict questions), family wealth and status, birthplace, color

Magnifying house 3Look carefully who’s living next door. In this census the enumerators were given a map the districts they were to cover and the households included in census are mostly in the order they were visited which gives us a very good understanding of who the neighbors were.

  • Because the census is organized in order of households visited, you can begin to build the circle of influence for your ancestors. Make it practice to always record at least six to ten families before and after the listing of your family. Are they the same family? Members of the same congregation? Friends?
  • Are the given names similar among the neighbors and your family? Similar names run in families.  This might be a clue that they are more than just neighbors.
  • It has been my experience that neighbors, even when they don’t share the same name are related. Look for the neighbors being the wife’s parents, sister of the husband, siblings of the wife, aunts and uncles and so forth.
  • Often neighbors move with neighbors. If you can’t follow family or find the family in the census, see if you can follow neighbors. When I couldn’t find my ancestors in location, I have searched on the names of know neighbors to find my family. Make sure you include the names of neighbors in your family profile.
  • See the article, “Learn about the neighbors in census research.”

Search/extract information on persons with the same surname.  In my research, I have often found that there are family connections among those with the same surname.

  • Could they be a relative? Does the individual show up as a child in earlier census?  Search other records such as deeds, wills to see if the person shows up. Could individuals be in-laws? Check marriages of the county for husbands of sisters, aunts, mothers.
  • Make it a practice to extract all the persons with the same surname living in the same county.  Are they family? They could be family connection or related connection such as where they came from.  If your family lives near a state our county border, go ahead and extract the persons with the same surnames from neighboring counties.  I have usually found important clues and connections among those with the same surname that has enhanced my research.

Misspelled names are ok. Never assume that the surname you are researching has stayed the same through the generations or even through a life time. It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that spelling conventions became common. Spelling was a phonetic practice meaning you wrote down the name as you heard it. Ewell becomes Youile, Uhl, Zoule, Eule. Census enumerators, priests, doctors, lawyers, school teachers, tax collectors, and any other persons with need to write down your family name probably had some input on how it was written. Be prepared to find the name spelled differently for every record you find.  When record the spelling in your genealogy database, leave the spelling as you found it.  And of course make sure to add any new spelling to your family/name reference list so you will be aware spelling variation.

Missing personWhen you know your ancestor lived in the area. If you’re certain a family lived in a specific area, but you just can’t find them, consider looking for alternate surname spellings.  If your surname was “Brown,” search spellings like

  • Brawn
  • Brun
  • Brown
  • Browne
  • Broune
  • Braune

Consider looking for names that have been Americanized to help with pronunciation or to set themselves apart from other families or cultures.  For example

  • Giovanni becomes John
  • Zbigniew becomes Charles
  • Dimitrios becomes James, Jim
  • Sandeep  becomes Sandi, Sandy
  • Grun becomes Green
  • Concetta becomes Connie
  • Schmidt becomes Smith

If you know the origin of the name (i.e., German, Swedish), ask someone who knows the language to pronounce the name.  They will be able to apply pronunciation rules for the original language and give you a chance to phonetically spell the name as census taker might have done, translate the meaning if what Americanized, and/or provide insights as to how the name might be spelled in the original language.

Never assume that the surname you are researching has stayed the same through the generations or even through a life time.  Census enumerators, priests, doctors, lawyers, school teachers, tax collectors, and any other persons with need to write down your family name probably had some input on how it was written.  I have learned that for every record I find, I should not be surprised if my name is spelled differently.  For example one research found the following:

  • Reardin was found in a land record
  • Rairdon was found in a census
  • Rarden was found in a church record
  • Rardin was found in a court record
  • Reardin was found in a military record

I actually have one record where my surname is spelled four different ways in one paragraph.

Search first within a 25 mile radius of the area where you believe your ancestor lived.  Expand your search by 25 miles until you feel you have exhausted possibilities.  There has been several times where I have expanded my search to include the entire state and look for all areas where the surname was found.  If your family lived near a state boundary, make sure you search the neighboring state. Expand your research and locate where else the surname is located within the state.

See the article, ” When you can’t find your ancestor in the census.”

Look for cultural naming patterns. Many cultures have very specific naming patterns that provide important clues in identify family units that may be connected from one generation to the next. When you are working on a family you know to be a specific religion or nationality, check to see if there are naming patterns common to that group. See the detailed article, ” Look for cultural naming patterns.” Also see the articles:

Look beyond just names and relationships. As you research the census, you need to be able to see more than family names and relationships which are usually found in the first few columns of the 1850-1940 censuses.  Look at the other columns for events that you can research beyond the pages of the census.  Look carefully for information in columns related to other events where sources and records exist that you can use to compare and analyses. Start by looking at the columns related to:

  • Born: Age, birthplace, parents birth place
  • Custom events: Prison/convict questions lead to records
  • Death: Head of household is missing, parent living with child, widow status of a spouse, mortality schedule
  • Education: Attended school (e.g., elementary to college)
  • Immigration and naturalization
  • Land: Real estate value and mortgage questions
  • Marriage: Wife, if married within the year, marital status
  • Military: Veteran, service in specific conflict, widow or veteran schedules
  • Occupation

Search 1810Searching online databases. When you realize that the spelling of your ancestors name can vary from census to census, there are times when your name search does not produced desired results.  The following are few ideas to consider.

  • Try using a wildcard search.  Most census databases will allow you to use these search techniques.
    • Wildcard ? question mark: This is where you use the ? mark to replace a letter.  For example, if you your name was Smith, you might also find it spelled Smyth.  Conduct your search using the Sm?th.  This will return names like Smith, Smyth, Smath, Smoth.  The spelling of the name stays the same except for the letter represented by the ?.  Please note you cannot put the ? in front of a word.
    • Wildcard *asterix. You can use the * represent an unknown number of letters.  I often will use the search for Scandinavian names.  For example, if I did a search on John*, I would get returns of Johnson, Johnsen, Johns, Johnathon.  Note you must have at least 3 letters before the *.
  • Try the using the Soundex option if it’s available which helps to identify alternative spellings. The Soundex is a coded surname (last name) index based on the way a surname sounds rather than the way it is spelled. Surnames that sound the same, but are spelled differently, like SMITH and SMYTH , have the same code and are filed together.

Searching census with online/database search engines. When you are searching family in online census databases such as, FamliySeach, and MyHeritage, I have found it valuable to use a variety of search strategies to make sure I have thoroughly searched the census record.

  • Geographically limit your search area
  • Search on last name only if rare (or with geographical limitations if more common)
  • Search on last name with identifiers (age range, sex, race, place of birth, occupation, etc.)
  • Search on given name only with geographical limitations
  • Search on given name only with identifiers and geographical limitations
  • Search on another name in that household
  • Search on another name that should be listed nearby in that census year
  • Search on names with wildcards (rules for wildcard use and results returned vary)
  • Search phonetically (via Soundex)
  • If your family lived in a rural area, read the census pages line by line
  • Check the census pagination. Sometimes pages are missing or out of order
  • Search the state census, families may have been missed when the federal census but be in the state census

Preparations before using a census. Write down as many facts as you know about the family.  Spell the family name as it appears.  Think of as many name variations as you can. Know the state and county that you are searching in. Keep in mind that you may need to check neighboring counties.  I have research some families that have lived on state lines and found family both states.  If you are going to go to a library to search microfilm, call the library ahead of time to find out what they have available.

When questions arise in the census. When things are not clear and you are having difficulty finding your family in a census, expand the search by creating a picture of the community.  Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Who were the neighbors?
  • Were there others with the same surname in the community?
  • Compare family naming practices. Are there unique middle names that are actually related surnames?
  • Who was named in whose will?
  • If the court house burned, maybe the newspaper didn’t
  • Check the records of the county institutions, poor farm, orphanage, jail, prison and hospital
  • Finding and reading local histories are always helpful
  • Not all of these histories are academically correct but they can provide clues about a community’s problems, its churches and politics
  • Build a checklist for each generation by looking for records that include
    • Census
    • Military
    • Military pension
    • Vital records
    • All forms of court records
    • Land records
    • Newspapers

First and middle names. You never know what first name your ancestor will be known by.  Think of yourself, friends, and relatives.  Some go by birth name, nickname, middle name and/or their initial.  Be on the lookout for these variations with each census. Check out the article, “Search strategies for finding names in the census and other resources.”

  • Middle names. It was common our ancestors to name their children after parents, grandparents and give them a middle name by which they would be known. For example, James Albert Johnson would be known by Albert or Bert Johnson.
  • Initials. I have found names changing from census to census with the use of the initial.  For example, James Isaac Steward in the 1800 census became, J. Steward in 1810, James. I. Steward in 1840 and James Stewart in 1850.
  • Nicknames. I have found many occasions where nicknames are used instead of the birth name. I have made it practice to always include possible nicknames in my family profile just in case I need search variations of the name. If you would like to learn more about nicknames, check out this article, “Finding nicknames in genealogy research.”  The following are examples of nicknames I have found.
    • Margret becomes Meg, Megan
    • Mary becomes Moll, Polly, Molly
    • Eleanor becomes Nell, Nellie, Nelly
    • Richard becomes Dick
    • Robert becomes Bob, dobbin
    • James becomes Jim, Jimmy

Census Birth YearUse the census to calculate the birth year of your ancestor.  As you track your ancestor through the U.S. Federal Population Censuses, I have often used the age to help me

  • Identify individual members of the family
  • Provide clues to confirm I have the right person/family unit as you search each census
  • Provide clues as to relationship in the family
  • Provide clues if I have the right female when surnames change through marriage
  • Provide clues when people use nicknames and other name variations from one census to the next
  • See the following article to help you calculate the birth year associated with the census, ” Using the census to calculate the birth year of your ancestor.”

When you are working with age in the census, you still have to be careful. Age/birth year provided on the census is not primary source like a birth certificate or church record.  It is one individual telling you the ages of the household.   If I were to answer the census question today on the age of my family I would be close but not exact.  I would start with how old my oldest daughter is and then subtract two years for each child.  Now if you were to ask my wife the same question, she would have no problem giving you the age of every member of our family right down to the month. My point is simple, information provided the census taker varies from household to household and it’s also about the quality of the census taker hearing and writing down what they heard correctly.

I have found it important to use the census age information to calculate range of possible birth dates and years of the people listed the family unit I am researching. I have prepared a birth year reference chart for each census to help you identify an estimated birth year for each ancestor.  See below for links to various census charts.

LA PinFocus on location.  In the 1850 census we are provided information such as the city, village, town, and borough and county where the family resides. This can help in defining geographic areas to search for family and records.

  • When you search location, try to find a map that shows the county/state boundaries at the time your ancestor lived there so you can make sure you research all possible record repositories.  For example, my ancestor Permitt Lee lived in Stanton County, Virginia in the late 1700’s part of which later becomes West Virginia.  When I expanded my research to West Virginia, I was able find new records never before known to the family.
  • Search for historical/genealogical society in the county to learn about community, records developed at the time you family lived in the area, connect with other genealogists who are researching the same surname, groups (i.e., church) to which your family belonged.
  • Use the location to look for resources such as churches, cemeteries, courthouses.
  • Use the location to identify locations of modern-day record repositories that are near the place you family lived (e.g., historical societies, genealogical societies, libraries, archives, court houses.)
  • If you can’t find your ancestor by name,trysearchingonthelocation with information you know about the person.  For example you know the wife was 45 living in Calvert County, Maryland in the 1850 census. Search the database for Female, age 35 (or age range 32-37) in Calvert county, Maryland.  Try using first name, marriage status, and/or age combinationswiththelocation.  Search variations might include:
    • First name, sex (i.e. female), age, and location
    • First name, age range and location
    • First  name, age, marriage status (e.g., married) and location
    • Sex (i.e., female), age and location
    • Age and location
    • First name and location
  • See the article, “Changing boundaries affect where you find ancestor records.”

Search the original record.  Much of the research we are able to do on census records are done online. The information we see are what is referred to as transcripts, meaning that someone has looked at the original record has interpreted what has been written and provided it to you in an abbreviated format. Looking at the original record is a must.  Take time to find the original digital image or photocopy microfilm of full page.  Look for census taker notes. See if there are any errors in transcription. I have found an average of 10% errors in the transcripts from the original records. Look for other information is not in the transcription.

Make a alphabet “sampler” from actual census entries. If you encounter illegible writing, you may want to study the handwriting of the enumerator who recorded the census form you’re looking at.  You can do this by picking out the most legible letters and words and working from there. For example, the enumerator listing Abraham Lincoln (Illinois) wrote the letter “L” in a way that resembles an “S” and without looking at other words on the page, one might think that he was a “Sawyer” instead of a “Lawyer.”

Copy the way in which the census taker forms each letter. Place a piece of white paper directly on the microfilm viewing surface or printout and trace over the image.  This will help you to decipher the way the census taker formed the letters so as not to misinterpret spelling of names and other data recorded in the census. Become familiar with the names in the locale you are searching. Make good guesses from even partially illegible entries.  If needed, enlarge the image on screen or via magnifying glass to interpret what you see.  You can enlarge or reduce the image as needed for clarity.  Another idea is to turn the digital image from a positive image to a negative. Or lay a pink or yellow piece of paper on the viewing surface of the microfilm reader to enhance contrast.  Copy entries exactly as you find them, even if you suspect they are incorrect.

  • If you are having a hard time reading the census takers handwriting, take the time learn how he formed his letters such as a, f, h, j, p, and s.  This is where I have found the most transcription errors.  I will look for names/words that I know containing these letters and then compare how the census taker wrote the names of my ancestors.

Checkmarks 2Search every line of the census district. Yes, I know that the online databases are very comprehensive and finding your ancestor is 99.5% a sure thing.  As a practice be thorough and search every line of the census district and neighboring districts where you family lived. In my research I have found members of family living with friends in other counties, surnames phonetically spelled, members of family listed by middle names or initials.  Sometimes I have found census pages in the wrong order, family unit flowing from one page to the next or the census taker was just given wrong information.  In one instance I couldn’t find the family living in a group home that was listed near the end of the population schedule for the county.

Look carefully at other people with same surnames. Look closely at persons with the same surname. Could they be a relative? Does the individual show up as a child in earlier census?  Search other records such as deeds, wills to see if the person shows up. Could individuals be in-laws? Check marriages of the county for husbands of sisters, aunts, mothers.

Search all individuals living in the same household. It will not be uncommon to find individuals living in the same household that have different surnames (last names).  As a practices research all persons living in the household with your ancestors or in the home of siblings.  There is usually a family connection.

Research the state census.  State censuses were conducted by states in off years in between the Federal census. Every state was in charge of whether and when they would conduct a census.

  • State censuses were conducted by states in off years in between the Federal census such as in 1845, 1855, 1865. It really varies by state.
  • These censuses usually contain the same type of information as in the Federal as well as additional questions that are unique to that state.
  •  These censuses and are located at the state archive and/or libraries (note: many are online), through microfilm at LDS Family History Centers, online transcripts of counties within a state from historical societies, and online databases such as
  • The state census is a snapshot of the family and is value to use construct, confirm, add, and/or delete information from the family profile you are building.  For example, I have found children that were born and died in between the federal census. Confirmed deaths of wife’s, husbands and grandparents.
  • See the articles: “Availability of state census records post-1850” and/or “Availability of 1850-1940 U.S. Federal and state census records.”

Aug-26-Search all of your ancestor’s siblings. Make it a goal to find all of your ancestors’ family (parents and siblings and their families) in every census taken their during lifetime. In my own genealogy research, I have found it to be critical to find and search for every member of my ancestor’s family.  I will start with the earliest censuses when I see the family unit in the census and then move forward.  I research not only my ancestor in the family unit but each of the parents and siblings.  As the siblings leave home and start their families, I will follow and record their lives as they appear in each census.  This type of research is often referred to as a researching your collateral lines.  I will conduct this type of research for each generation. I will at least research one generation forward and one generation back for each family unit.

Census closest to death can yield many records.  Look for the last census naming ancestor.  You may find your ancestor living with children/grandchildren or visa versa. In the county of the census, search for death related records. Each death-related record may have different types of information/clues to support and expand your research. Examples of death-related records include:

  • Obituaries
  • Cemetery records
  • Wills
  • Deeds
  • Death certificates
  • Insurance
  • Funeral homes

Search every census taken during a person’s life. Find you ancestor in every census taken during the time they lived. If I was researching my grandfather who lived from 1852 to 1922, I would begin my search in the following Federal Population census: 1860, 1870, 1880, 1890’s state census (note: 99% of the 1890 Federal census was destroyed by fire and flood, 1900, 1910, and 1920.  Start with the most recent census and work backwards.   See the article, ” Use the census records to track your ancestors’ movement over time.” Also see the the John I. Stewart example 1850-1930. Start with the 1850 census or 1930 census.

Search every census schedule. Understand every census has different information and that there are a variety of census schedules.  These schedules include the well-known population schedule but there are also mortality schedules, agricultural schedules, state censuses and more. Search every census schedule for the each individual. For example, If I was researching my grandfather who lived from 1852 to 1922, I would begin by listing all of the census that were taken during his life time and then look to see where I could search the census.  In the case of my grandfather, the following are the schedules that were taken during are listed below.  Will I search each one?  I will become familiar with the schedule and then decide if it applies to my grandfather and his family. Schedules taken include:

  • 1856 Utah State Census
  • 1860 Federal Population Schedule
  • 1860 Agricultural Census Schedule
  • 1860 Federal Mortality Schedule
  • 1860 Industrial Schedule
  • 1860 Slave Schedule
  • 1860 Social Statistics Schedule
  • 1870 Federal Population Schedule
  • 1870 Agricultural Census Schedule
  • 1870 Industrial Schedule
  • 1870 Federal Mortality Schedule
  • 1870 Social Statistics Schedule
  • 1880 Federal Population Schedule
  • 1880 Agricultural Census Schedule
  • 1880 Federal Mortality Schedule
  • 1880 Defective Schedules
  • 1880 Manufacturing Schedule
  • 1890 Federal Population Schedule (99% of schedule is lost to fire and flood)
    1890 Veterans Schedule
  • 1900 Federal Population Schedule
  • 1900 Indian Schedule
  • 1910 Federal Population Schedule
  • 1920 Federal Population Schedule

Study the ages of all family members in each census. Look at age gaps between children.  Is the age cap normal? For example, every two years.  Are the age gaps larger than expected? This could be a clue that there was another child or spouse that had passed away.  Look at age of husband and wife.  Are they about the same age? Is one spouse much older than the other?  If yes, this could be a clue that there is second marriage. Look at the ages of children and the place of birth.  This might provide clues of where the parents were married or from where the family migrated.

Return to the census when you have more experience. When I first started research the census, I eagerly went from census to census coping down the names of my ancestors.  I kept a log of the pages where I found them. A few years later I had the opportunity to return to the same census for another search.   I returned to the pages I had noted and I was able to see connections and clues that I didn’t see the first time I was there.  I had more experience and more information.  From that experience, I went back to all the censuses I had previously research to reexamine the data and answers and insights many questions I was researching.