Strategies for Using U.S. Census

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Handout[edit | edit source]

Strategies for Using United States Census Records[edit | edit source]

INTRODUCTION[edit | edit source]

Census records are fundamental to family history research, especially when you use them to:
• Get on solid ground to verify what you know. [You may find even more!]
• See clues often overlooked.
• Identify possible relatives or in-laws.

GET ON SOLID GROUND[edit | edit source]

Start with what you know. The first census to search should verify what you already know. It will help you know you have the right family, give a strong foundation for your research, and is likely to contain more information than you had.

When you use a census to verify information, you may:
• Learn of additional children.
• Notice differences between what the census tells you and the information you have.
• Find relatives or in-laws living with or near your ancestor. See Identify Possible Relatives or In-laws below.
• Or you may find clues for further research. See the section See Clues! below.

Tip 1: Don’t assume that previous research is correct. Others may not have searched everything or interpreted the information correctly.

SEE CLUES![edit | edit source]

There are many clues on a census page that are frequently overlooked. Studying the ages of family members, for example, may spur ideas:
• Look for large gaps between children. [There may a missing child or a second marriage.]
• Compare the ages of husband and wife. [If one is much older than the other, it may be a clue there was a second marriage.]
• Notice how the age of the wife compares with the oldest and the youngest child. [If she was too old or too young, this might be the child of a previous wife.]
• Ages and places of birth of the children can be clues to:
     - Where the parents were married.
     - Migration from state to state.
• The more you study the census page, the more clues you’ll find.


Once you find your ancestor, look for possible relatives in the same census year for the same place. Parents, siblings, or in-laws may be living in the area.
• People with the same surname.
• In-laws with different surnames.

The possible relatives may be easier to locate in an earlier census and thereby lead you to your ancestor.

Tip 2: Search marriages of the county, especially for females with your ancestor’s surname. Then search the same census again for the husbands. You may find sisters, aunts – or even the ancestor’s mother remarried and living nearby.

MAKE THE MOST OF THE CENSUS[edit | edit source]

The four most important things to find in a census are:
1) Your family
2) Their location! Location! Location!
3) Possible relatives or in-laws living in the area
4) Neighbors (who may also be relatives)

1) Your Family
1790–1840 Heads of families are the only persons named. Other males and females in the household are marked according to their ages. These censuses are valuable, even without names of the family members because of family makeup, where they lived (location), and names of neighbors.

1850–1930 The name of each person is given, with age and state or country of birth. Each census asks for slightly different information. [See 200 Years of Census Taking (FHL book 973 X2thy) for full details.]

2) Location! Location! Location!
Where your family lived is the KEY to finding other records created about them!
• County level: Marriages, deeds, wills, county histories, etc.
• Town level: Church, cemetery, etc.
• State level: Statewide vital records, military records, statewide indexes, etc.

Tip 3: Don’t forget to search other records of the area for the possible relatives you found in the census as mentioned in Identify possible relatives. Their records may hold the key to information about your ancestor.

3 & 4) Possible relatives, in-laws, and neighbors
These may not have the same surname as your ancestor, as is the case with aunts, sisters, or even a remarried mother. Neighbors may also be relatives or old family friends who migrated with your ancestor’s family, or witnessed some of their records.

Tip 4: Compare your ancestor’s family with neighbors. Are there similar migration patterns? Do unusual given names for your families occur in these other families?

KEY STRATEGIES[edit | edit source]

[Key] Search every census during lifetime
Every census contains different information:
• Ages and birthplaces may vary.
• Differences could be clues.

Other family members may live with your ancestors!
• Parents, in-laws, grandchildren
• Sons, married daughters

Your ancestors may have lived with or near other family members.

[Key] Make photocopies (or save images)
An image or photocopy is pure gold for a researcher!
• Having a photocopy saves time and energy.
• Your conclusions from a photocopy will be more reliable from that point forward than from notes.
• You can study handwriting, compare information about other families, and see clues you will miss by merely writing the information on a form.
• Other people can help analyze the information if you have a copy

If you did not make a photocopy…
• Others can’t help you as well.
• You’ll wonder if you missed any clues.
• Eventually you’ll have to go back and look at the page again anyway.

Use census forms if you wish, but always make a photocopy of the census page!

Tip 5: Be sure to copy the whole page! That way you are sure to have ALL the clues.


There are advantages to each census. But which one is the best one to search now?
• The same census where you found your ancestor deserves a deeper study for possible relatives or other clues.

• The census closest to death locates where to search for death-related records, which may give birth date and place, name of spouse, names of parents, and a broader foundation for continued research.

Each type of death-related record [cemetery, death, obituary, funeral home, probate, for example] was created for a different purpose and may give new or conflicting information. Look at each conflict as a clue, an opportunity!

• Any censuses you didn’t photocopy. They may have clues or information you didn’t see the first time.

• The census 10 years earlier.
- If your ancestor is found in the same area, you may find additional relatives and in-laws, which increases the recognition factor.
- If your ancestor moved in that 10 years, you may see neighbors, relatives, or others you recognize from the other census.

Jumping more than 10 years increases your risk of attaching to the wrong line.

• The census closest to birth—a POOR first choice.
- There are too many families with the same surname
- There are likely several families with a child who has the same name as your ancestor
- You don’t have enough information to recognize the right family

To recognize the right person, get on a solid foundation first. Find possible relatives and other clues so you can RECOGNIZE the right family in earlier censuses.

Tip 6: The census closest to birth is dangerous! You’ll be so excited to find someone that looks right, you may not even verify that this is—or is not—YOUR ancestor!

Handout prepared by WA & PXH

Exercise 1[edit | edit source]

For a printed census form for any of these exercises, you can print forms for each census in PDF format from links on this page in the FamilySearch Research  Wiki:  United States Census Forms

Subject:  Ephraim Smith, b. Jul 1793 in Rhode Island; d. 22 Mar 1868, m. abt 1823 to Armida, b. 1803 in New York,


     1.  Find Ephraim Smith in all applicable censuses. 

     2.  What do the censuses tell us about Ephraim?

     3.  What suggestions do they give about Ephraim?

     4.  What further ideas come from the information about his neighbors?

     5.  With the above, what 5 things would you search next if the goal is to find Ephraim's parents? 

     6.  Why would you search them?