Now that you’ve collected as much information as you can from within your family to complete your Family Group Sheets and Pedigree Charts (refer to my post, Five Step to Getting Started With Your Family Research for more information), it’s time to begin looking for your ancestors in public records. Census Records are a very good place to start!
Every 10 years since 1790, the US government has conducted censuses to count the population. Megan Smolenyak² hit the nail on the head in her book, Who Do You Think You Are? when she said,
Genealogists are the accidental beneficiaries of all this counting. There was never any intention to record our forbears for prosperity, but that’s exactly what happened.” 
Well, all I can say is that I’m glad all this counting was done and that these records exist right now today! And due to privacy restrictions, census records are only available for researching/viewing and purchase after seventy-two years. The 1940 Census is the most recent decade available to us; it was released to the general public on April 2, 2012.
So where exactly can you find census records?
They are available to you via:
All census records are on microfilm.
- They are available to anyone who has access to microfilm readers. These readers may be found at public and academic libraries, historical societies, and research centers. If you live in or near Houston, TX, then the Clayton Library Center for Genealogical Research is the place you want to be! So check with libraries and/or organizations in your area to learn which records are available to you.
- In addition to libraries in your area, complete sets of census records are available at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. and its branches across this country in Anchorage, Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Fort Worth, Kansas City, New York City, Philadelphia, Riverside, CA., San Francisco, and Seattle.
- Census records may also be rented from The Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah or through its Family History Centers throughout the world (download this handy PDF directory of Family History Center locations from FamilyTreeMagazine.com).
- Digitized on CD-ROM and Abstracted Records Online
U.S. Census records are available on CD-ROM from Heritage Quest and quite a few census records and schedules have been abstracted and published online via various county pages provided by the wonderful volunteers of the USGenWeb Project and RootsWeb
In recent years some or all census records are available online through free and paid subscription websites. I’ve listed a few of them below:
So how do you use census records to find your ancestors?
Begin by reading and researching the most recent census (1940) and work backwards in time. So start by finding families and ancestors in the 1940 census. Then look for them in the 1930 census, then in the 1920 census, and so on . . . back as far as these records will take you.
Quick tips for you to remember as you read and research census records:
- Search all available census (federal and state) for each ancestor on your family group sheets and pedigree charts. For clues and tips about the kind of information that was collected for each census decade, visit the National Archive’s website for:
- Clues in Census Rrecords, 1790 – 1840: http://www.archives.gov/research/census/1790-1840.html
- Clues in Census Records, 1850 – 1930: http://www.archives.gov/research/census/1850-1930.html
- FAQ about the 1940 Census: http://www.archives.gov/research/census/1940/faqs.html
- Copy (or photocopy) every ancestors’ detail you find in the census. Consider downloading blank census forms (1790 – 1940) from FamilyTreeMagazine.com’s website to fill-in for every ancestor and family you find in census records - http://familytreemagazine.com/info/censusforms. These forms become a great source citation for each family group sheet you create; so make plenty copies!
- Be aware that there will be inconsistencies with some of the information you’ve gathered about your ancestors with what you’ll find about them in census records. For starters, the spelling of the family’s surname from one decade to the next may change which can make locating them difficult at times. Why? It’s probably due to the limited education of the census taker recording the facts, and/or the ancestors giving those facts (this is especially true with newly Emancipated African Americans who could not read and write due to slavery). You may also find a lot of inconsistencies with ages and birth dates of your ancestors in these records. Why? Many states did not did not keep written records or document these events early on as we do today (refer to my post, “Five Drawbacks I’ve Encountered Using Census Records” for more inconsistencies to be on the lookout for as you explore these records).
- Be sure to indicate any missing information or blanks (such as a birth date, birthplace, parents’ name, etc.) you find in the census in your notes. Why? It serves as a “memory jogger” for you later when you’re looking over your notes and documents. Your notations will remind you that certain details were missing in these records and not because you overlooked them.
- Always copy information from these records in your notes exactly as they appear regardless of their inaccuracy! Note all errors you find with the Latin word sic (which means “thus”) as a reminder that you’ve copied exactly what was given even though you know, with certainty, it’s an error.
Have more census information, tips, and strategies to share? Let me hear from you!
1. Smolenyak², Megan. “Learning to Love the Census.” Who Do You Think You Are?: The Essential Guide to Tracing Your Family History. New York: Penguin, 2010. 56. Print.