Census Search Tips

We all probably have at least one of them. In my case, there are several. They're those families for whom you've searched and searched and searched, but are still unable to locate in the census. You've pulled out all the stops, repeated the searches over and over, and spent more late nights than you'd care to admit trying to coax them to appear on the screen. Yet they steadfastly refuse.

For those of us who have been researching for a long time, we may know the tricks, and think we've tried it all, but sometimes it's a good idea to review and see if there's something we missed.

Are You Searching Direct?
If I'm missing an ancestor in a census, rather than trying to catch them in a big global search "net," I go right to that particular census year and search it directly (scroll down below the search box to access censuses by year). At Ancestry.com, the census search forms differ from year to year based on what information is searchable in each index. More recent census years often have more fields that can be used to zero in on your ancestor. Just remember not to fill in too much search criteria, or you risk ruling out your ancestor's entry. Start with a broad search and then rotate in new search criteria until you get a manageable number of hits.

List Your Attempts
When you're trying out variations and combinations of search criteria in each field, it can be confusing. Without keeping track, it's easy to miss that "magic combination." Keep track of which searches you have performed and review the list periodically to look for combinations you haven't tried. Even if you give up for a while, as you learn new information about the family, when you revisit the list, you'll realize you haven't performed a search using that new tidbit.

No Last Name
It seems like most of the problems I have in locating my elusive ancestors come from misspelled or mis-transcribed surnames. But yet, I often find myself still using surname variations as part of my search criteria. That can be a roadblock and I have to remind myself to try leaving it out completely 

This week, I was talking to my uncle, who is also interested in family history. He was telling me how he was unable to find his family in 1930. He knew family names, ages, and where they were living, but with searches focusing on variations of the surname Barnby, he was still coming up empty.

I searched for one of the children, Charles, using only the given name, and entered his parents' given names of Henry and Mary, specifying only the location of Stark County, Ohio. There they were indexed as Bamer. When I glanced at the image, I could see how this mistake was made. Upon closer inspection, it appears that the name written was actually Barnes, instead of Barnby.

Here were two layers of problems with the surname. It was written wrong by the enumerator and then indexed incorrectly, further corrupting the name. In addition, all three names--Bamer, Barnes, and Barnby--have different Soundex codes, so a Soundex search wouldn't have found the family. A wildcard search for Bar* would have missed them as well. (For wildcard searches at Ancestry, an asterisk (*) represents 0-6 characters and a question mark (?) represents one character.)

My uncle told me he had actually searched for Barnes as a variation of Barnby. Looking at the letters, it's easy to see how "rn" may have been interpreted as an m. Look at the letters in the names you are searching for. What might one letter or a pair of letters be confused with? Try imitating handwriting styles used in census images in that area. (I've found one of the best ways to imitate some enumerators' handwriting is to tie a pen to your pet's paw and let them take a whack at it.)

Names and Dates 
In another example, my boss was telling me about a family she had been unable to locate. The surname was Jones and in addition to the surname being mis-transcribed, several family members' given names were wrong as well. In this case, one of the siblings of her ancestor was named Abner and she knew he had been born in 1921 in Utah. I entered only the first name Abner, his birth year, and Utah in the appropriate fields and he turned up, the only Abner born in Utah in 1921--enumerated with the last name Dones. 

Track a Neighbor
You've probably heard professionals advise you to make note of the neighbors of your ancestor. This is good advice. Not only could they be related or turn up as witnesses or sponsors in other records, but they can sometimes be used to locate your ancestors. If you have an ancestor in 1880, but are unable to locate them in 1870, despite strong evidence that suggests they had been in the area at that time, look around at the neighbors from 1880 and try a search for one of them. Perhaps the handwriting on their name was easier to read, and their entry fared better than that of your ancestor.

Older neighbors, who would have likely had their home for a few years are good candidates for this. Also, people who owned their home, rather than renters, are more likely to have been the same place through more than one enumeration. Renters, particularly when you're searching in an urban environment, often moved more frequently.

Are They Really There?
So you have them in their hometown in 1860, and there again in 1880, but you can't find them in 1870. Did you ever consider the possibility that they moved away for a time, only to return? Perhaps an economic hardship caused them to leave for a time to find work. Or maybe there was an event that damaged their property and they had to move in with relatives for a time, until they could raise money to rebuild. Or maybe they went in search of an opportunity that just didn't pan out, so they returned to the area where other family members had remained. There are a lot of reasons why your ancestors may have moved on for a bit, only to return. Investigate the history of the area in which they lived for clues, and broaden your search horizons by using names, ages, and search criteria other than location. You may find them someplace unexpected.

It's also possible that they were missed by the census taker. Remember that in rural areas especially, the route of the enumerator might not have been as simple as walking door to door, up and down the block. They would have been traveling through areas with few or no roads and a house off the beaten track might have been missed entirely.

But don't give up without a good fight. Census records give us a wonderful look into our ancestors' households and the clues we find in them can really push our research forward. So dust off one of those elusive ancestors and challenge yourself to locate them once and for all!

Juliana Smith has been the editor of Ancestry.com newsletters for more than eight years and is author of The Ancestry Family Historian's Address Book. She has written for Ancestry Magazine and wrote the "Computers and Technology" chapter in The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy, rev. 3rd edition. Juliana can be reached by e-mail at Juliana@Ancestry.com, but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.