US Census Record and the title Find Your Family in US Census Records

How to Research US Census Records Using FamilySearch and Ancestry

Researching US Census records is the first step for many genealogists as they investigate a new relative. US Census records are readily available on a number of websites, including Ancestry and Family Search.

Follow along as we do a live demonstration of researching in US Census record collections for Cinderella.

Discover the process for finding the runaway debutante on FamilySearch and Ancestry.

You’ll also learn a variety of online genealogy techniques to locate your ancestors.

US Census Records - How to Do Genealogy Research on FamilySearch and Ancestry
Watch this video on YouTube.

12 General Tips for Researching US Census Records

While researching US Census Records, follow these tips no matter which platform you use to find your family.

  1. Cast a broad net initially and then narrow down your results
  2. Try different spelling variations and nicknames to find your ancestor: Cinderella could be Ella, Cindy, Rella, Rell
  3. Search by your ancestor’s first name only. This is especially helpful for females who change their surnames, or males who go missing.
  4. Search by your ancestor’s surname only. If you can’t seem to find an ancestor by their given name, search for them by their last name only.
  5. Use a range rather than a specific year when researching records. Census record enumeration dates vary, so your ancestor will not always have the same birth year in these records. They might also misremember or lie. Use a range of +/- 5 or 10 to find your ancestors
  6. Pay attention to all the clues each census provides. In this case, when Cinderella was recorded in her husband’s household, the record indicated parents were from Tennessee. That detail helped us find Cinderella’s parents in previous census documents.
  7. Search for other family members when you can not find your ancestor in a record collection
  8. If in doubt, validate census record information using additional records. City directories, birth records, gravestone, death records, and more.
  9. When a race seems to change for an ancestor, check the Census Enumeration instructions. These instructions dictate how people from different nationalities or with varying tones of skin should have been classified.
  10. When you access census records when relationships are not specified, check out Census Enumeration Instructions for clues. The instructions informed the census tacker how to arrange individuals to indicate connections to the head of the household when they didn’t require specifications.
  11. Explore State Census records. Not every state enumerated its citizens between the federal census records, but many did.
  12. When you can’t find an ancestor in one website’s census record collection, explore another website’s collection. Ancestry, FindMyPast, MyHeritage, and FamilySearch use different search technology, and you can find an ancestor easily in one database and not the other.

Researching FamilySearch US Census Record Collections

  • Navigate to the Search Page
  • Add details about your relative to the search boxes
    • You don’t have to complete every field
    • Take advantage of residence fields
  • Filter Results by Collection
    • Select the census records that your ancestor likely appeared in.
    • Also include non-traditional census records, such as school records.
Screen shot of filtering FamilySearch search results by collection.
  • Explore the Search Results
  • Evaluate potential candidates for your ancestor
  • Pay attention to “Similar Historical Records.” Family Search attempts to give you even more record hints based on the ones you find.
Screen shot of index to census record on FamilySearch
Pay attention to the “Similar Historical Records” in the lower right corner. You may find more records for your relatives.

Researching Ancestry US Census Record Collections

  • Use Google to search for “Ancestry US Census Records” to quickly navigate to the collection
    • Typically you would use the card catalog, but his hack saves me a ton of time when trying to quickly access a specific record.
  • Add details about your relative to the search boxes
  • Use the left column to:
    • Filter by location or date
    • Use the Search Filter sliders to expand or contract date ranges, place, or spelling variations
Screenshot of Ancestry search filters.
  • Explore the Search Results
  • Evaluate potential candidates for your ancestor
  • Pay attention to “Suggested Records.” Ancestry attempts to give you even more record hints based on the ones you find.
Screenshot of Census Record reference page for an entry on Ancestry.com

Final Thoughts About Reseaching US Census Records

While evaluating US census records for your ancestors, always examine the index to the document and the actual image. You’ll be surprised by all the details you can learn to help you connect your ancestor to other relatives and additional records.

Also, pay attention to location changes. In this case, Cinderella was from the Indian Territory. That tells us A LOT of information and will lead us to additional records.

US Census Record and the title Find Your Family in US Census Records

Continue Learning About Beginning Genealogy

Review the following blogs and videos for more tips about beginning genealogy.

Devon Noel Lee is passionate about capturing and preserving family stories so no one alive today has to be researched, or forgotten, tomorrow. She has authored 6 how-to books, a memoir, two published family history biographies, and over 60 family scrapbooks. She's an enthusiastic speaker who energizes, encourages, and educates at the same time.

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