Searching the U.S. Census Records
It is important to know that the U.S. Constitution requires the federal government to conduct a count of the nation’s population every ten years. State census records are available for research starting with the 1940 census.
There are several places to search the census records. Of course, you can use Ancestry.com but you have to pay for a subscription if you want to have access from home or you can access the site from most libraries for free. You can also use HeritageQuestOnline.com through your local library if they have a paid subscription. My favorite genealogy site is Familysearch.org because it’s free and this is the website I’ll be using to explain how to search census records. This website is a service provided by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I highly recommend setting up an account.
Tip: Once you have an account, log in and click “get help” then click on the “getting started” link. You’ll find so much valuable information there.
What you’ll find on the census:
From 1790-1840, only the head of household is listed and the number of household members in selected age groups.
From 1850 to 1940, details are provided for all individuals in each household, such as:
- names of family members
- their ages
- their state or country of birth
- their parent’s birthplaces
- year of immigration
- street address
- marriage status and years of marriage
- value of their home and personal belongings
- the crops grown (if any)
To search census records on Familysearch.org go to “Search”, “Records”. You can start your Census records search with only the name of your relative or ancestor, and hopefully the state he or she resided in but, enter as much information as possible to get more precise results.
At the “Restrict records by” section click on “Type”. A list of options will appear, click on the “Census, Residence, and Lists” box to search the census records. Then, click on the “Search” button.
Only information prior to 1940 is available to the public because by federal law, there is a 72-year restriction on access. The best way to go about it, is to start with the most recent census and work your way backwards. In other words, start searching for your closest ancestor (your parent or grandparent) in the 1940 census and move on to the 1930s, 1920s, 1910s, etc.
Trace your ancestors through the census, record their names, ages, birthplaces, and the place of birth for his father and mother, and their residence at the time of the census. You should be able to determine approximate year of marriage, names for children or other family members living at the residence. You may also find immigration details and occupation for your ancestors.
Each of these data elements provides you with additional clues to use as filters as you step back to an earlier decade. Once you’ve recorded as much detail on each ancestor found in the census year you are searching, it’s time to move back to the previous decade. Search the census decade based on the information you first collected. Try matching parents to siblings.
Searching the census records can be very intimidating but with any luck you’ll find links to more information.
- Search for family names, many times children were named after parents or grandparents.
- Check other possible ways to spell name, often times the person recording the information misspelled names and sometimes transcription errors were made.
- Check neighbors, census records were taken by location, often times families lived near each other and relative may found living in close proximity.