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Census Searching Techniques: Search Techniques

Advanced Census for Genealogy Research. Techniques for searching the U.S. census schedules in the Ancestry Library Edition database.

Related Research Guides

Identifying Variant Spellings

Guides to Places

These resources help identify changes in county / state boundaries.

Before You Search for Census Records in Ancestry

Make a list of first and surname spelling variations before you search for Census records in Ancestry.

  • Try some of the name variation generators listed in the Identifying Variant Spellings box in this guide (left).
  • Think of phonetic spellings by saying the names out loud.
  • Ask someone else how they would spell the name.
  • Check surname resources, such as the published genealogies in Cyndi's List (Surnames, Family Associations, & Family Newsletters).
  • Note other spellings as you search and keep the list for future research.

Collect information about the time period, place and family.

  • Changes in boundaries and place names may affect your search.
  • Was there a war at this time? Was your person stationed in another country?

Study the Names You Plan to Search

Names are frequently misspelled in Census records, so spelling is an important consideration.

The misspellings may be due to the Census enumerator, the indexer, or the person who provided the information.

Common Reasons:

  • Bad or difficult to interpret handwriting
  • Bad copying
  • Damaged or difficult to read documents
  • Illiteracy
  • Spelling variations (spelling wasn’t “fixed”)
  • Phonetic spellings
  • First and last names are reversed
  • Abbreviated names
  • Translations
  • Transliteration rules change (e.g., Chaikovski was later written as Tchaikovsky)
  • People change their names for various reasons
  • Not everyone in the same family may choose the same spelling

Search Strategies for Winning the Census Name Game

Here are some strategies you can use to “win” the Census name game.

Move from Basic to Specific

  • First, move from the initial Ancestry search box and search the Census directly. Choose US Census Records-All from the right side of the page. The initial search box examines a variety of documents. US Census Records-All allows users to focus solely on Census records and enter more specific details about a person and/or family.
  • Choose Show Advanced on the US Census Records-All search screen if you want to manipulate the name, birth year, events, location and other details to exact or allow for specific close approximations.
  • If you are only interested in a specific Census year, select that year from the list. Keep in mind that the search screen for an older Census may have fewer places for family details. The older records did not include this information, so you can't search for these details.
  • Enter the details you think you know (e.g., place and spouse).
  • Examine all potential records even though some contain details that appear to be incorrect or not what you expected to see.

Gradually Shift from Specific to Basic

If you do not find your record, try the following strategies--not necessarily in this order.

  • "Massage" the name to search for variant spellings.
  • Try wildcard symbols. (An asterisk * substitutes for 0-6 letters. A question mark ? stands for one letter. A name must have at least three letters, so you type Jos* and not Jo*.)
  • Use the middle name instead of the first name.
  • Substitute initials for the first and/or middle name.
  • Remove the first name and search without it.
  • Remove the last name and search for the first name.
  • Omit the name entirely and search for the names of the family members.
  • Remove and/or change details (place, spouse, children, etc.) one by one. Remember that misspellings may not be the only problems introduced by Census indexers. Simple index details such as gender and race may be incorrect.
  • If you are successful and find a record despite a misspelling, be sure to try that name search strategy in the initial Ancestry search box. You may be able to identify documents not previously found.

Focus on the Place

  • If name searches are unrewarding and other documents indicate that the family lived in a specific place, search the Census records for that place. The Advanced search screens for US Census Records-All and specific Census years allow you to manipulate the location choice to "exact" and use it as a main search factor.
  • You can also choose a specific Census year and then select choices in the "Browse this collection" box (on the right). This search option allows you to browse all of the Census pages for a particular place. This may not be a difficult task if the place is a small town or if you are searching an older Census. For example, the 1830 pages for Byberry, Pennsylvania, can be displayed on 12 pages.
  • When examining a Census record, be sure to notice and record the information about the place as well as the family. In what county, on what street, at what address were they living? These details will help you position your family in a specific place and time.
  • Research the places you find. Where are they? Search Google and books for descriptions of the places and map
  • Check to see if the place is included in the National Register of Historic Places.

Change Databases or Formats

If the Census record still eludes you, try another index.

  • Repeat the name search in Heritage Quest.
  • Census indexes in print or microfilm format may be available for older Census years.

Collect Additional Information Before You Repeat Your Search

Still haven't found the person or family you are seeking?

  • Look for additional information about the place, the time period and the family before you repeat your search.
  • Pay attention to details such as the year of immigration, the date of the marriage and the place where the first child was born.

Census Searching Tips