Monday, September 05, 2005

Finding Your Ancestors in Census Records

Exactly how many children did Great Aunt Martha have? What year did Grandma and Grandpa get married? What did Great Grandpa do for a living?

All these questions, and more, can be answered by using census records. I am going to specifically speak on the U.S. Federal Census Records. There are many websites that have U.S. Federal Census records available for you to search. Some do it for a fee while others are free. You can also find census records at Family History Centers (operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints), the public library, genealogical libraries and archives. Again, some of these places are free while others charge a small fee to use the facility or order microfilms.

There is a great Beginners Guide to the US Federal Censuses on the Tennessee GenWeb. It has a ton of useful information and a chapter on each census taken. This also gives some history and background information about each census.

When I sit down to do research in a census, I like to print off a blank census form from that year. I do it from my genealogy software program, Family Tree Legends. They have a section of 'Blank Forms' that you can print off and every census year is accounted for. It is a lot nicer than the way I used to keep track of what I found! I used to just make my own little chart on a blank piece of paper. This way is much more effecient and organized.

My two favorite websites for census research are Heritage Quest, which I get free from my public library website, and Ancestry, this is a subscription based site but you can use it for free at many public libraries and Family History Centers. The 1880 census is also available for free at FamilySearch. There have been many times when I can find an ancestor at one of these sites but not the others. This is because different people do the data entry from the microfilms. Sometimes the entry maker does a terrible job of spelling the name. So always check more than one site. If you find a name that had been indexed wrong, make a note on your paper of the mistake so you can always find it again (and tell other relatives how to find it). Searchable indexes are so much faster than trying to go through a census page by page. But you will often have to try many variations of name spelling to find the right person. I have never had much luck with the Soundex search, but do try it. This is a search for names that sound like the name you are searching. I have much better luck with typing in variations myself. Don't be afraid to play around and try several different searches. Sometimes the search I think is the most ridiculous is the one with the best results. If you can't find the family by searching the fathers name, try the mothers or a childs. A lot of genealogy research depends upon experimentation. If searching these indexed census records doesn't work you'll have to begin scrolling through the microfilms!

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