Monday, January 18, 2010

Tips for Federal Census Searches Online

Looking to become more successful at finding your ancestors while searching the U.S Census online? Here are 15 tips from my presentation, The Federal Census, Secrets for Searching the Census Online, which I gave at the Society’s monthly meeting on January 13, 2010.

1. Since county (and city) boundaries changed over time, use Ani-Map (available on computers in the CCGS Genealogy Room at the Dennis Public Library) to see how they have changed. Also, read Thorndale & Dollarhide Map Guide to the US Federal Censuses in our library or visit Family History 101. If you know locations you can always browse online census pages to find elusive individuals.

2. Download and have available blank census forms so you can easily see column headings of online census pages. Blank forms for census and mortality records are available from and has free downloadable Excel and PDF census forms you can fill out for all state and federal censuses.

3. Make a folder for each of your surnames on your computer to store downloaded copies of each census by family.

4. List all information you have on each person: Date and place of birth; date and place of death; spouse; children and keep it handy while you search for search parameters or verification of material found.

5. Make a Census Checklist for each family and indicate each year in which you find a census record to avoid duplication.

6. Write down all possible spelling permutations of each surname you are researching or download the Surname Suggestion List Program which is free at It will suggest both excellent and
far- fetched possible surnames, plus allowing you to search in Google, Google Books and Google Images directly from the program!

7. Remember that names were Anglicized (e.g. Schwarz became Black, Kuhn became Coon). The enumerator wrote what he heard (e.g., Synderalaugh became Cinderella). Long names were often shortened (e.g. Blanketpickler became Pickler).

8. Handwriting presented problems for the indexer (e.g., A & H, K & R, etc. were often misread for each other). Pick out known letters on the census page and compare. Find another member of household whose name might be more clear.

9. When researching immigrants, try searching for given name in native tongue (enumerator wrote what he heard). Check column to see if immigrant could speak English. Search without a last name (i.e., use first name, date and place of birth, etc.). Search City Directories for location and then browse census pages for that area.

10.  Enumerators sometimes flipped last and first names. For example, Sutton Maxson became Maxson Sutton. Try using the first name as surname and see what you find.

11. Begin searching in the most recent census year possible, say 1910, and work back through previous census years; e.g., 1900, 1880, etc.

12. Heritage Quest is free through most local libraries with a library card and a login PIN and is available on computers in our Genealogy Room. Heritage Quest can be searched for "head of household" only, plus household members with a different surname. It does not allow the use of "wildcards" for search. Find the census page using Ancestry or Family Search indexing and obtain image free on Heritage Quest. Records can be browsed by year, state, county and enumeration district. Census records 1800-1840 are not indexed and must be browsed.

13. is available on all computers in the CCGS Genealogy Room, as well as computers in all Dennis libraries (check other Cape Cod town libraries for availability). All names are listed in all censuses. Use wildcards for search: replace a single letter with "?"; replace up to six letters with *. The * can be used to replace either the start of a surname or the end of  a surname, as long as three other consecutive letters are used. Ancestry allows search by first name only, as well as search with no name; but you can use occupation, year and place of birth, or other fields. Records on Ancestry can also be "browsed" by location.

14. The FamilySearch Pilot site has several census years complete, and more are added all the time. The site is free and allows searching by first name only as well as by location.

15. is a new for-pay genealogical website, and will eventually have all census years indexed and available. To date, only 1860 and 1930 are complete. It may be available on our genealogical room computers soon.

Carolyn Weiss, Charlie Moeder and Nancy De Nise look for census records online at the January 13, 2009 CCGS monthly meeting.
See my complete list of recommended sites for online census research.

How did these tips work for you? Do you have any of your own to add? Please leave a comment below -

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