Even a Beginner Can Search Census Records Like an Expert

by Craig Rice | Aug 27, 2009

Craig Rice

Wouldn't it be nice if when you wanted to find an ancestor you could go straight to the contemporary census records and find all the information you wanted? Unfortunately genealogical research doesn't always work that way. Foreign names were susceptible to misspellings from the moment our ancestors landed on America's shores.

Indexers misinterpreted shaky handwriting or just shortened long, confusing names as a matter of expediency. To complicate matters, multiple immigrants had similar-sounding names so even if you find the name you're looking for you may not have found the person you're looking for.

What's a researcher to do?  

Fortunately, there are techniques you can use to find that hard-to-find record.  Start with the family information you already know.  Begin with the most recent census and work back in time.  Often a family will stay in one place for many years so looking at census records from before or after the record you are looking for will help.  Many families repeat names from one generation to the next so following the same name backward through census records can be a clue that you have the correct family.  

Here are other ways you can overcome common challenges:


The further back you go in records the more likely it is that spelling may be inconsistent from one record to another.  Names were spelled like they sounded.  With standard Internet search engine tools, you can identify these spelling variations.  In fact, using the match option might return so many possibilities that you won't have time to look at all of the results. What then?  

Try limiting the number of records by using any other information you have.  If you know other members of the family, try searching for them.  If you know an approximate date of birth, use a date range to restrict the number of records (be careful not to be too restrictive as ages often were not exact in the census).


The spelling may be as you expected but if the handwriting is hard to read the index may be incorrect.  You have to change your thinking to find the record in this case.  Start by writing the name you are looking for in script.  Older handwriting may have "ornamental" loops that you don't see in current handwriting.  For example, an uppercase "M" may have a loop at the end of the letter that looks like an "e" so "Mary" will appear to be "Meary."  

Other examples in older census records: An "r n" may look like an "m"; an uppercase "L" often looks like "S"; a hard "s" was formed like an "f."  Each census taker's handwriting is unique but even good handwriting is difficult to read if the condition of the film image is poor.  If you can't decipher a particular word, look at each character in the word and compare it to other words on that page or adjacent pages in words that you can read.  

Don't limit yourself to just one example of a letter.  The census taker may have been in a hurry and so in haste wrote sloppily or formed characters in an inconsistent fashion from one word to another.  Notice whether "t"s go uncrossed, "e"s are open or look like undotted "i"s.

What you already know

Use all you know about the family to help you in your search. Parents' and siblings' names help you to know that you have the correct family group.  Birth order of siblings is important and birth dates can reduce the number of records you need to view.  If you know where the person was born or lived, limit your search to those areas.

During a recent search, I wanted to find the 1930 census record for Clay Holiday.  I knew that his wife was named Lena and they had a son Coyne born in 1929 in Magoffin County, Kentucky.  Unfortunately, there is no Clay Holiday in the 1930 census. Nor is there a Coyne Holiday.  However, there is a Lena Holiday in Magoffin County who is married to a Lloy.  

When I examined the handwriting, I found that the name of the head of household is actually Clay; the indexer misread the C.  But when I compared it with the C in sons Carl and Coin (not Coyne), I discovered that they are formed the same way.  
Clay is 35 first married at 21 and Lena is 33 first married at 27, which indicated that Clay was married before he was married to Lena.  Sure enough, Clay pops right up in the 1920 census with former wife May living in the same county and in the 1910 census with parents Fanner and Emma.  

Clay Holiday does not show up in the 1900 census but using soundex he shows right up with the last name being spelled Holida. This time his parents are Farmer and Emma.  When I reexamined the 1910 census I realized the head of household could be either Farmer or Fanner, depending on how the handwriting is interpreted.  The name Farmer is reinforced by the 1930 census record that shows that Clay and Lena named a child Farmer.

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