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Census Search Secrets

If family historians had ruled the world, I'm sure things would be quite different. Vital records would have been recorded since the beginning of time-in triplicate. Courthouses would have been built fireproof, bug- and rodent-proof, and on high ground. There would have been no records lost to wars. (Who has time to start a war when you're hot on the trail of your third-great-grandfather?)

In the case of censuses, census enumerators would have had to pass rigorous exams, be multi-lingual, and have perfect penmanship. Alas, this was not the case. Enumerators were often political appointees who just happened to have the right connections, and anyone who has worked with census records can attest that nice handwriting was definitely not a requirement!

Despite inaccuracies, unreadable handwriting, faulty copies, and numerous other obstacles, family historians still turn to these records frequently because of the wonderful things we find in them. Here are some tips to help you find those seemingly un-findable families.

- Search the census you’re missing directly. While the global search forms on the homepage and search tab on Ancestry.com are great for searching all of the collections and quickly capturing the closest matches, if you’re missing an ancestor in a particular census, your best approach is to search it directly. Plus, individual census search forms may include fields tailored to the content in that enumeration. For example, since the 1900 census asked married couples how many years they had been married (and that field was indexed by Ancestry.com), you can include that detail. If you don’t know the exact year, you can estimate it and add a date range of plus or minus one, two, five or ten years. Scroll down on this page to access individual census collections.  Or customize your homepage so that the Record Collections widget is always on your home page and census records are always at your fingertips.

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- Search without a last name. Too often we continue to search for variations of the last name, but overlook the possibility that the details we have beyond the surname may be enough to narrow the search to a manageable number of matches. If you’re really having trouble, stick to given names, including the given names of other family members who would have been enumerated with your ancestor, locations, birth dates, etc.

- Searching phonetically can be useful. Some of our ancestors simply weren’t concerned about how their name was spelled. I’ve seen one of my ancestor’s name spelled Dwyer, Ware, Wire, Toire, Wyre, and Weir.

- Use wildcards to pick up name variants. An asterisk (*) matches zero or more characters and a question mark matches one character. Last year wildcard functionality was improved so that now the first letter can now be a wildcard. The only restrictions are that a) either the first or last character must be a non-wildcard character and b) names must contain at least three non-wildcard characters. I find this really helpful when I’m searching for my Huggins ancestors-a family who had a rather casual attitude when it came to the vowels in their name. H?gg?ns will pick up the variations of Huggins, Higgins, Higgans, and Huggans that I often see.

- Try searching for other family members who might be living in the same household (for example, the individual’s parents or siblings). Their name may be clearer than that of your direct ancestor. Relatives with more unusual given names can be particularly helpful. 

- Locate a neighbor (preferably a home owner who is more likely to be living in the same place) in a previous census and search for them in the subsequent census. See if your ancestor is still nearby. Where available, try to locate a state census since they were typically taken between federal censuses and may shorten the time span between.

- If you can’t find the individual you are looking for, do not give up. Narrow your search using city directories, and then browse through the census for that area. (Tip: Use a directory for the year after the census year. They were often created beginning in May of the previous year, which would have been right around census time. You’ll often find this type of information in the introduction to the city directory.)

Juliana Smith has been editing newsletters at Ancestry.com for more than thirteen years. 

Search Census Records on Ancestry.com   

Other articles in the 07 August 2011 Weekly Discovery

Your Civil War Story: Identifying Those Who Fought  

Family History Tip: Occupational Clues  

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