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Tips for Searching the Census

September 30, 2012 2 comments

I often joke that my ancestors must have been hiding when the census taker knocked on their door because some of them seem to disappear from one census to the next.  Here are a few tips for locating your ancestors in the census when they seemed to have disappeared.

  1. Use Soundex Search.  The spelling of a surname sometimes changes with the passage of time.  Using a soundex search will help you locate names that sound alike but are spelled differently.  Don’t only relay on the soundex search because some surnames that sound alike have different soundex codes and therefore, would not be picked up by a soundex search.
  2. Use Wildcard Search.  A wild card search allows you to search for a name when you are not sure of the spelling by using use special symbols (called wildcards). The specific wildcard rules and symbols vary by census index; however most (including Ancestry.com) use asterisk (*) to represent multiple letters and the question mark (?) to represent one letter. One of the surnames I am researching is  “Woodfork”.  However, the spelling on the name varies greatly: “Woolfolk”, “Woodfolk”, “Woodford” etc.  The common letters in all of these spellings are “woo” and “fo”; therefore, whenever I search for an ancestor with this surname I always search for “woo*fo*”.
  3. Search for nickname.People do not always appear in the census with their birth name.  The marriage certificate for one of my Shakespeare ancestors shows the brides name as “Sarah A. Ferguson”.  In most of the censuses she is listed as “Sarah”; however, she is listed in the 1920 census as “Sallie”.  “Sallie” and “Sally” are common nicknames for Sarah. There are many websites that list common nicknames for popular first names.
  4. Search for Middles Names.  Many people are known by their middle name, not their first name.  Searching for my maternal ancestors was a major chore.  My mother had done a good job of writing down the family history she remembered.  I also had additional information that had been collected from some of my other elderly relatives.  However, I was having a tough time reconciling the information I found in the census with the information that was provided by family members. For example, when I reviewed the information collected from my family there was a “Leander Herbert”, “Parren Hebert” and his son Henry.  However, when I located my 2nd Great-Grandparents in the census they did not have any children with those names, but they did have a “John Herbert” and a “Thomas Herbert”.  It took me awhile until I figured out that almost everyone in the family used their middle name.  “Leander Herbert” was “John Leander Herbert”.  “Parren Hebert” was “Thomas Parren Hebert” and his son Henry was “Thomas Henry Herbert”.
  5. Search for abbreviations.  Sometimes names are abbreviated in the census.  My 2nd great grandfather “William Woolfolk” is listed in the 1870 census as “Wm Woolfolk”.  Other common abbreviations I have encountered in the census are Jno (John), Chas (Charles) and Jas (James).  You can find website that contain lists of abbreviations for many common names
  6. Search for family members. Sometimes you may need to search for a spouse, sibling, or child to locate a family member.  I could not find my 3rd great grandfather, “Sancho Shakespeare”, in the 1880 census, so I decided to search for his wife, “Lucinda Shakespeare” and was able to locate the family.  “Sancho” had been written as “Sanker”
  7. Search for surname only.  If the surname is not common you can search without a first name.  There are not that many people with the “Shakespeare” surname in Caroline County, Virginia in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.  In fact, there appears to be only one family in the census and they all are my ancestors. I could not find my 3rd great grandfather “Sancho Shakespeare” and his family in the 1870 census.  I decided to search for the “Shakespeare” surname, without a first name.  One of the names I located was “George Shakespeare”.  Other members of the household were Sarah, Lucinda, John, Martha and Fannie.  The surname for those family members was “Shakeleford”.  This family was my ancestors.  “Sarah Shakespeare” was really “Sancho Shakespeare” my 3rd great grandfather, Lucinda was his wife, John and Martha were their children and Fannie was their granddaughter.  “George Shakespeare” was their grandson who I was not familiar with because I knew him as “George Rollins” and “George Lewis”.
  8. Search for first name.  If a person has an uncommon first name it may be possible to locate him/her without searching for a surname and using other information instead.  When helping a friend research her family history, I searched without luck for a female who lived in James River Buckingham, County Virginia with the name “Willie Lethea Morris”.  I was able to locate her in the 1930 census using her married name but could not find her using her maiden name.  Based on the information from the 1930 census, I estimated she was born circa 1890. I then did a search for the first name “Willie”, born “1890 +/- 5 years”, and living in James River, Buckingham, County, Virginia and located her in the 1900 census where she is listed as “Willie L Morrison” (“Morris” had been transcribed as “Morrison”), the 1910 census where she is listed as “Willie Arthur Morris” (“Arletha” had been incorrectly transcribed as “Arthur”).  I was even able to locate her in the 1920 census where her married name was misspelled.
  9. Search for Initials.  On several occasions I have encountered a page in the census where almost everyone’s name was written with the initials and the surname.   When using the approach be sure to search for first name initial, middle name initial and surname, as well as, first name initial and surname.
  10. Search for neighbors. In the past people lived in the same location for many years, sometimes all their life.  Searching for a neighbor is a good way to locate your ancestors.  Once you find the neighbor check two pages before and two pages after the neighbor and look for your ancestor.
  11. Just Browse.  Sometimes when all else fails it may be necessary to go to the enumeration district where the person last lived and browse the census page by page.

Ancestry.com provides users with the capability to submit corrections.  I strongly encourage researchers to use this feature to submit corrections once you find an elusive ancestor. Your correction will be added to the indexes and other users will be ale to see your correction.

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