Finding the Right Mr. Smith in the Census

by Julie Hill

Posted on July 19, 2012

Common names might make you cringe when you're researching your family history. It can be hard to find your ancestor when he or she has a common last name like Smith, Johnson, or Miller. It's even more challenging if that person also has a common first name. Fortunately, there are ways you can find your ancestor in the census, even when hundreds of other people have the same name. Here we'll explain a couple:

1940-census-search.jpeg Narrow by County
One of the easiest ways to narrow your census search is to add the county where you think the person was living. There are 218 William Millers in Kansas in the 1940 census. If you think your William Miller was living in Osage County, add Osage to your search. The four who were living in Osage County will go to the top of the results list.

Use Birth Information
There are 1,434 John Johnsons in California in the 1940 census. You can narrow those results by adding a year of birth and/or a place of birth. Let's say your John Johnson was born in Ohio around 1908. There are only 19 who were born in Ohio and 53 who were born in 1908 (+/- 1 year). Combine the birthplace and the year of birth and you get 2 results - much more manageable than 1,434!

Search for the Unusual Name
What if you don't know what county your ancestor was living in or when he was born? Think about other people who should be in the household with him. Is there anyone with an unusual first name? (Say what you will about odd names that celebrities give their kids. Future generations should be able to find them easily in the census!) Don't search for your ancestor with the common name; instead, look for the person with the unusual first name.

Looking for George Smith in Virginia in 1940? There are 493. What if the one you're looking for should have his young daughter Oneida in the household? Instead of searching for George, search for Oneida. There are only two of them living in Virginia, including the one living with her father George in Norfolk County.

oneida-smith-1940-census.jpeg Use These Strategies for Other Censuses
Although these examples are from the 1940 census, they will work on other U.S. censuses back to 1850. (Before 1850, only the head of household was listed by name and there are no birthplaces listed.) Use the county of residence and birth information to narrow your results. Piggy-back on other people in the household if there is someone with an unusual first name. These strategies will help you find those ancestors who seem to get lost in a sea of common names!

About the Census on Archives
Archives is a proud partner in the 1940 U.S. Census Community Project. Everyone can search the 1940 census for free at Archives members can also search the U.S. census beginning with the first census in 1790 through 1940.

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