I’ve been scanning documents a cousin sent me and found some 11×17 copies of census records there was no way I was going to scan.11x17 copies of Census records This should all be online so I went to my computer to make sure this census record was attached to my online family trees at Ancestry, MyHeritage, and FamilySearch.

So, I’m staring at a paper copy of the 1910 census record and type in my ancestor’s name exactly as it appears in the census. That’s usually the hold up when I can’t find someone in a census: their name has been indexed incorrectly, they’re going by a different name, etc. In this case he’s adopted a nickname for his given name so I type in “Harry Webber,” his birthdate, his birthplace (it was Wales, the enumerator has England, I typed England) I left out his wife’s name because I’ve seen it indexed as both Eve and Eva and didn’t want that to mess up my search. I submitted my search and he’s nowhere to be found. I’m not accustomed to looking at more than the first page of search results so I’m ticked it’s not there. I’m staring at a paper copy of a census roll and can’t get it to pull up on my computer. This was supposed to be a quick search and verify. My blood pressure is rising.

Long story short, I made a some missteps, so my 7 census research tips are:

  • Census tip #1: Do the math. Even if you know someone’s birth year, when you’re looking at a census record, you need to compute how old the census taker said the person was. Use a census age calculator to figure out birthyears if you’re not inclined to do census subtraction.* I knew his actual birthyear so I skipped this step. But short version of the math is: year of the census – age in the census = year of birth, roughly, in this case 1910-50=1860. You can be more precise if you know the actual “census day,” in this case April 15, 1910, and the month and year of birth. Bored yet? Yeah, me too. But if I’d done this one step there’d be no problems to blog about. Do yourself a favor and do the math.
  • Census tip #2: Don’t be a hardliner about birthdates. I know my ancestor’s birthdate is 1852 or 1853. The enumerator has 1860. We can say people back then were less concerned about birthdates and keeping track of their age but right next to being born in 1860 (false) he’s got being naturalized in 1859 (true). Seriously. I know ages are notoriously incorrect in census records but in this case I’m guessing it’s because he was an actor and wanted to seem younger than he was.** Even the enumerator should have known he wasn’t naturalized before he was born. But, being right about a birthdate is worthless if it prevents you from finding someone in the census so don’t be a hardliner on birthdates.
  • Census tip #3: Don’t make assumptions about the search engine. I assumed when I didn’t tell Ancestry.com the birthdate was exact, they’d prioritize this information in their search parameters. Wrong. I didn’t bother to check the box to specify how
    Ancestry.com search screen

    Ancestry.com search screen with birth year not specified as “Exact”

    Ancestry.com search screen with birth year specified as "Exact =+/- 10 years"

    Ancestry.com search screen with birth year specified as “Exact =+/- 10 years”

    “unexact” I wanted it to be. My bad. They don’t prioritize this very highly unless you tell them to. If I had checked “within 10 years” he would have pulled up. As it is, I’ve since been through five pages of search results with my simple query and still not found him. Don’t make assumptions about the search engine.

  • Census tip #4: MyHeritage has the most user-friendly search parameters I’ve found. When I say user-friendly search parameters I mean they return what I expect to find.
    MyHeritage accurate search results

    MyHeritage accurate search results with the same vague parameters

    Even though MyHeritage, Ancestry, and FamilySearch may share the exact same census scans and indexes, the algorithms used to return searches are customized by each company. If you can’t find your ancestor on one company’s census record, try a different company or create a better search.

  • Census tip #5: Scan the whole census return for the township/division where you’ve found a relative. Genealogist Lisa Lisson tweets “Tuesday tips” from her website and this is one of her tips. Amen, sister. Scan that census roll forward and back. I may be lazy, but if you can’t take the time to scroll through a few extra pages of census records in the comfort of your own home while you have some music or show playing, you must not have been doing genealogy back in the day where you sat in front of a microfilm reader in a library. It’s very rare for me not to find extended family in the same township as an ancestor when I scan a census roll front to back. Nuclear families are a more recent phenomena. Even if you don’t find grandma and grandpa in the same township, you’ll probably find other surnames from your tree that are related. Or, as in Lisa’s example, you’ll get to know who their neighbors were and when you hit a brick wall you might be glad you know. Scanning this census roll a little further I found my family had been enumerated twice, which leads to tip #6.
  • Census tip #6: If adult children are living with a parent in the census, check the census roll to make sure they weren’t enumerated twice. I’m not sure if the enumerator misunderstood the census instructions or if the person who answered the questions didn’t understand the questions, but in my family, the enumerator listed a son, no wife, and two children (one adopted child) as living with his parents. My mind was running through all the possibilities, Did they divorce? Did she die? Then two pages later, the same enumerator listed this same son as living in his own home with his wife and two children. Finding this family enumerated twice in one census was helpful because I learned from the double entries that (1) his wife was alive and they were still together (2) he adopted her first child. Why are there double entries in the census? Who knows, just be aware they’re there and look for them.
  • Census tip #7: If you know specifics about where and when someone lived, search by a particular census and state/county/etc. within that census. I had the printed copy of the 1910 census record in front of me. I knew exactly where in the census this person could be found. I should have started with a more specific search. First, in this case, select the 1910 US Federal Census (I did that much); then, if the search engine allows this option, specify the state, county, and township. Then put in the name, etc you’re looking for. Most people probably have lazy search habits, like mine, but if the search engine doesn’t cater to lazy search habits, choose a different search engine or raise the bar on your searches. I know I will.

Unrelated information in case you care, the 1940 census is the first census where enumerators specified in the census which person gave them the information.

1940 Census with respondent info

1940 Census with respondent marked by an “x”

They put a mark next to the name of the person who gave them the information.







*I just noticed that MyHeritage has an age calculator “Calculate it” built-in on their search screen, another user-friendly device.

MyHeritage search screen with birth year calculator

MyHeritage search screen with built-in birth year calculator

MyHeritage birth year calculator on search screen

MyHeritage birth year calculator on search screen

**I have it from a reliable source (someone who actually fulfilled the request) that actors/actresses have been known to fight to have their ages removed from online databases (job security to be younger).


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