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Tips To Search Census Records

The United States Federal Census records are one of the best ways to research your ancestors.  They are my favorite records to search, but it isn’t always as simple as putting in a name and finding them.  Below are some tips and tricks that I have learned through my years of searching records, so if you are struggling to find someone on the records, maybe these will help give you some ideas to search census records and help hunt them down.  My favorite site to use in Ancestry.com, but it does require paying a fee to search their records.  To search them for free, you can use FamilySearch.org.

search census records

1. Don’t Use The Full Name

One of the best tips to search census records is to not use your ancestors full name in the search.  Many times when I can’t find someone I know is in a census record, my first go to is take out the last name and only search by first name and birth year.  This is going to be the best way to find someone, especially if they have a very unique last name that is difficult to spell.  I have two examples from my own searching to show just have widely last names can vary from year to year on the census records.

The first example is a man named Gustaf Joe Brakevelt who was born in 1889 in Belgium.  The 1920 census record name is Gustaf Brackeveldt, 1930 is Gustof Brokefeldt, 1940 is Gustof Brookeveld and his WWI draft card has his name as Gustaf Brokerelt.  Trying to find this man on all the census records was a challenge, but ultimately the only way to find him was searching by first name, birth year and birth place.

The second example is a man named Jacob Fuhriman born in 1831 in Switzerland.  Only one census record has the correct spelling of the last name.  1870 census name is Jacob Frahrmann, 1880 is Jacob Tuhrman, 1900 is Jacob Fuhrmann, and 1910 is the correct spelling Jacob Fuhriman,


2. Search Other Households

Another tip is to search other family members households.  This is going to be especially useful if one or both of the parents have died and you are looking for a minor child.  Sometimes the child will be living with a grandparent, uncle, aunt, or an adult sibling.  This could cause the child to have the incorrect last name.  If they only list the surname of the head of the household, the last name won’t match if the child is living with an adult sister who is married, or their maternal grandparents.


3. Search Using Alternate Names and Spellings

There have been times where I have found a person on the census record and they have an alternate first name.  One example would be a shortened version of the name.  Take William for example.  Alternate names could by Will, Willie, Willy or even Billy.  For Benjamin, alternates could be Ben, Benny, Benji, Beny or even Benson.

Another thing to try would be using their middle name or if you know they have a nickname.  I have learned over the years is that Marie and Mary are commonly interchanged.  Sometimes they will use their nickname on the census.  One example is a lady with the full name Bergetta Marie Rasmusen who is Birdie Rasmusen on the 1900 census.

Some men will use their initials instead of their first or middle name.  I have run into whole households that only listed initials for everyone.  If this happens, you can usually find them by using the first tip and only use the last name and birth year.


4. Search The Area

Sometimes, I have only been able to find a person using the area I expect them to be living and a birth year.  Census records are sometimes difficult to read and the person who transcribes the records will make their best guess, but might be way off and the name you are hunting for is not even close to the correct spelling.  Lets say you have found the person in 1900 and 1920, but you can’t find them in 1910 and they are living in the same county in 1900 and 1920, try leaving out the name and search by the county and birth year.  You could also add filters such as birth place and gender, but I normally like to leave searches as broad as possible because I have run into records that have the wrong birth place and even a couple that had the wrong gender listed.


5. When You Run Into A Brick Wall

Another tip when you search census records is to keep track of what you have tried.  One thing I like to do is make notes of names and areas I have searched.  This will save time when you run out of ideas, leave it sitting for awhile and come back to it.  You won’t be wasting time searching the same things over if you create a note for yourself.



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