Coming to Your Census!
By James W. Petty, AG, CG

When I was a child, my mother had the newest of appliances (that my Father could afford). We had an electric washing machine, but I remember it was the kind that sported a squeegee attachment to assist in drying clothing.

Electric dryers hadn’t yet entered our lives, but we were delighted with the benefits of the inventions we had. After wringing out the clothes, Mother would hang them on clotheslines that stretched from the garage to the far side of the yard. When dryers became available (and Dad could afford one) we moved into a new stage of technical evolution, and clotheslines and squeegees became a thing of the past, and eventually disappeared from our home and society.

We live in a marvelous day and age because of technological advances. They are opening new doors of opportunity all around us, providing people with better and easier ways to do old work. When I was a young amateur genealogist, I was taught to search census records to discover where people lived, who they were, and what relationships existed. This was in the 1960’s and 1970’s, before census indexes had been compiled to assist in our research.

Federal census records up to the 1880’s were available on microfilm, and we had to study these extensive rolls name by name and page by page to find the families we were searching for. A partial index of the 1880 Census (only families with children under the age of 10 were indexed) was one of the benefits that made this census so much easier to use. Otherwise a search of a large community could take several days to complete. It was tedious and often boring work, but when family names were found, whoops and hollers of delight could be heard throughout the library.

In the 1980’s, the Family History Library began looking to census records as a source for extraction for temple ordinances. To accomplish this, the 1880 Census was chosen, and it would be computerized. The records had to be indexed, and to accomplish this, technology and computer software programs had to be developed that would capture family and given names, as well as gender, ages, and birthplaces.

All of this information was put into source fields that when combined would help in identifying family names and relationships. It took several years for this revolutionary project to develop. One of the benefits was that library patrons could search every name in the entire 1880 Federal Census to find their long-lost ancestors. This was the first computer-indexed census.

After that the Family History Department indexed the 1881 English Census. With that massive and useful project, the concept of creating computer indexes of microfilmed records caught hold in the minds of many private and commercial entities.

In the late 1990’s, after the Internet was established, and people could begin searching the web and sharing genealogy discoveries, two new companies,, and Heritage, began to index early census records, and make them available on-line. By 2005, every census for the United States from 1790 to 1930 was indexed, and made available, digitally, on the Internet. They could be viewed for free through the Family History Library and its branches, as well as in many public libraries. Individuals at home could see the census records on their personal computers for a reasonable subscription fee.

Today we are the beneficiaries of such technological advances. Besides U.S. censuses, additional census records have now been made available for England, Canada, Scotland, and many other locations.

Looking back to those early days of researching and recording family names by hand seems like an eternity past. Today we have personal computers, and the Internet, with indexes and images of all of the existing federal census records available at the touch of a button (or a mouse). But even this convention is a very recent development. Many state or private census records have not been digitized, or indexed, and these record sources must still be searched name by name and page by page. We are waiting for that great day in the near future when even these will be available on our computers.

Basic Steps

Before going further, let me emphasize a very critical point. Searching census records is one of the most basic steps as you start your family history research. The important thing to realize is that this is something everybody can do; children as well as adults can search census records.

And because of modern technology, you can search and discover information your grandparents or that great aunt who did the family genealogy, could never expect to find. Nevertheless, remember that the age of computers is still in its infancy. Less than two percent of public records have been digitized and made available on the Internet.

The Family History Library has announced an historic project to digitize its vast collection of microfilmed records, but this expected to take five to ten years to accomplish. Consequently, most genealogical research today still must be done by searching records on microfilm or visiting the local county courthouse to examine the original documents. The fact that most censuses are available on the Internet makes this a most important resource to become familiar with by every researcher.

Because of the Internet, searching census records is something most people can do in the comfort of their own homes. It used to be that to search census records, you had to travel to a library that had access to federal microfilm records, and there view the information reel by reel. In the past sixty years, many county census records have been abstracted and published, thereby becoming available to genealogy collections in local libraries. But these were still a very small percentage of census records.

With the advent of the Computer Age, and the introduction of the internet, most census records have been made available in your own home on your own computer. However, if you intend to search census records (and many other records) on a serious basis, I recommend purchasing a membership with one of the several web companies that offer such access, such as

As a professional genealogist, I search census records using the computer on a daily basis, and have found that it saves me hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars to have access to census databases and other record sources in this manner.

Census records are lists of the citizens in cities, counties, and states throughout our country. Census records have also been kept in Canada, England and the British Isles, and in many other countries. These lists of people, and their statistical information help their respective governments determine how to organize public services, and how to tax, or provide assistance to the people they governs.

For genealogy and family history purposes, census records, depending upon the census year, can show such information as names, ages, relationships, and birthplaces of family members every ten years from 1790 (in America) to the present. Censuses in England and other members of the English Commonwealth were taken ever ten years beginning in 1841 (earlier censuses were taken but no longer exists except in rare cases), with equally important genealogical data.

New Aspects of Research

Searching census records with a computer has opened up new aspects of research never available before the technological advent of the Internet. Not only can we search for individuals, but we can also search for everyone in a community of the same surname. This may reveal close or distant family relationships.

We can look for every person in a community based on their given name only, which can be useful if you have an unusual given name, but don’t know the surname, such as with a wife’s maiden name.

We can also focus on people based on their place of birth. We can now search for common names, but with access to technology that makes it easier. Looking for John Smith or William Brown in any community can be a daunting challenge, but with the benefits of modern computer databases, we can narrow down our searches by age limits, occupations, and names of people they lived with or near. and other internet sites offer some census record databases for free on their websites. Groups like, offer all of the censuses, but on a subscription basis. However, even Ancestry offers free searches on a limited number of their censuses. Go to on the internet, and enter the name of an ancestor who lived prior to 1930, and see what comes up. Seeing the name and information on a person in a public record is an exciting experience.

For most people, names of ancestors, or names of people named in history books, or talked about in classes, are only semi-real. But seeing the names of Brigham Young, Theodore Roosevelt, or Abraham Lincoln, along with their families, recorded at their homes, makes these people come alive. You will feel a personal connection to these people because you have found them in a personal setting, and not just in a book about them.

Finding an ancestor and learning who his family members were, what his occupation was at that moment in time, and discovering details about his life and society creates a bond that you will be surprised to experience.

When I search for my family in census records, I can discover my living father, in the 1930 census when he was a little boy, and identify all of the children in his neighborhood with whom he played as a child. He had forgotten most of them until he saw their names, and the names of their families. We see his father as a young dentist, and his father, also a dentist, who was living in Hollywood in 1920, where he knew and cared for people like Walt Disney, whom we also could find as a young movie maker.

In 1880, I found my second-great-grandfather, who crossed the plains from Tennessee to Utah as a child in 1850, and found him with his father in 1850, three years before dying in Indian Territory. In 1840, I found my fourth-great-grandfather, who had been a soldier in the American Revolution. In 1800, I found his father established with his family on a farm in South Carolina.

Census records have taken me through seven generations of family history, offering me glimpses into the actual lives of my ancestors. The census is a snapshot in historical time that is worth a thousand words!

Not Always Easy

Searching censuses isn’t always easy. Ancestors weren’t recorded for our benefit, nor did they always give the information we want. People often lied about their ages. Mistakes in details were made out of ignorance, or because the census taker wasn’t diligent in recording information. Spelling mistakes are rampant; remember, most people prior to 1850 couldn’t read or write their own name. The people recording the records wrote it the way they heard it.

Searching censuses online allows a researcher to search various spellings, either by soundex searches (a special indexing system based on consonants), or by wild card searches (*) and thereby discover unusual ways to spell your name. And sometimes you have to wonder about the spelling and reading abilities of the indexer. Remember to be creative in your spelling of the name for both modern and past mistakes.

Some census records don’t provide as much information as others, but we are thankful for the information they do provide. Pre-1850 censuses are often referred to as statistical censuses because they only listed the names of the heads of households, and provided statistical numbers for the people living in the homes. This can still help a genealogist identify a family, who they lived near, and social conditions in the home.

In English census records, exact places of birth are recorded, helping the researcher to find families in parish registers. In later U.S. censuses actual birthdates are listed which help us look for the right person in other vital records where such dates are given. Unfortunately, this practice was discontinued after 1900; on the other hand, it was so long ago, very few living people have to worry about identity theft and we get the benefit of this valuable genealogical information.

Searching census records often requires an active imagination in order to find the people you are looking for. My wife’s ancestor, Niels Larson, came to America in 1866, and arrived in Utah in 1868, orphaned and alone. Family tradition stated that he lived in the home of Brigham Young, and received a coat from President Young.

A search of the 1870 census didn’t reveal Niels Larsen in the specific residence with Brigham Young. The census index didn’t even list “Niels” Larsen, but after searching name by name in the households around that of Brigham Young, we discovered “Nick” Larsen in the home of a Mrs. Harriett Snow, one of the plural wives of Brigham Young. This was the name she used at a time when the federal government was cracking down on polygamy.

This case study with Niels Larsen underscores an important point to remember in doing genealogy research. Always be aware of the history of the time and area of the person you are seeking. The historical setting may have a big impact on the census record you are looking at, and if you aren’t knowledgeable about the history of that place and time, you may not recognize or understand the information you find.

Being aware of the limitations of census indexers and discovering the value of computers in our search of census records, is what we call “Coming to Your Census !” Census records are a wonderful beginning resource for starting your genealogy research; but you must be persistent and imaginative to find your ancestors in these very important records.

These lists of people will lead you to additional resources, vital records and church records; deeds, mortgages and land records; probate, wills, and guardianship records; tax lists and prison records; military rolls, Indian registers, and all sorts of documents that will open up the “picture book” of the lives of your family members.

So, “Come To Your Census!” and discover the joy of doing genealogy.

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