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Ancestry Daily News   Michael John Neill – 3/18/2004

Census Retrospective

The census is one of the most used of all genealogical records and is a part of virtually every family history compilation. This every-ten-year snapshot of the American population has changed greatly since the first census was taken in 1790 and has been discussed many times in this column. Over time, more questions have been asked and more information has been gleaned from the American public--more than the founding fathers probably ever imagined. Because of these differences, search and analysis techniques for the 1790 census are different from the 1930 census. And of course, errors of all types create additional frustration for researchers regardless of the time period. This week, we take a brief look at some past columns on census records and their use.

Analyzing Pre-1850 Census Entries
Pre-1850 census records only list head of household and generally require more time to fully interpret than do later census records. The following three-part series analyzes 1810-1840 census records for a Pennsylvania resident and reaches several tentative conclusions about his likely household:

Categorizing Pre-1850 Census Records: Part I

Analyzing Pre-1850 Census Records: Part II

The Saga of Thomas Chaney, Part III: The Wife!

Chasing Thomas Chaney in Post-1840 Census Records.

Analyzing Post-1850 Census Entries
Census records beginning in 1850 enumerate every person by name, but there can still be confusion. Here a French-Canadian settler in upstate New York is located in census records from 1850 through 1900. With each entry a little more is learned about his likely family structure. In this example, the name Nazaire Drollette, gets spelled a myriad of ways and locating this individual in online indexes requires some clever search techniques.

Starting with My Senses

Starting with My Senses, Part 2

Hard-to-Find Ancestors
Not every ancestor can be found in a census, even if he is living. This article discusses a gentleman who could not be found in the 1840 census even though he is enumerated in 1830 and 1850. Additional records and a careful analysis of other 1840 census entries provided a reasonable solution and it appears he was not omitted in 1840 after all.

“Where Oh Where Is Abraham?”

A Partially Correct Census Entry
In this scenario a census index entry is partially incorrect, making the location of the actual census record from 1860 slightly more difficult than one would expect. This two-part series discusses an 1860 census entry with a curious name at the end of the entry and an apparent marriage between two individuals of the same gender. Even after analyzing the entry “to death,” I'm still not one hundred percent certain I have the answer.
Sometimes we never do get a concrete conclusion.

I am Jones or Am I Something Else?

“I am What I am or am I?”

Soundex Searches
Online searchable databases allow genealogists to search records based upon a Soundex option, where similar-sounding names are returned as results. Soundex searches are not limited to online databases. The Soundex to some census records have been available on microfilm for decades. This two-part series discusses what Soundex is and when it may be necessary to use the actual Soundex for some censuses on microfilm. It also shows why Soundex searches online might not find all the desired entries in the database.

Soundex, Part I

Soundex, Part II

Differences Among Indexes
This article discusses the difference between census indexes that include every name from the census and those that just include heads of household. There is a significant difference, and knowing which type of index you are using affects how searches should be conducted.

Every Name or Head of Household Index?

Agricultural Schedules
In the mid- to late-nineteenth century, the federal government took agricultural censuses in addition to censuses of the population. While this article focuses on the 1880 agricultural census, agricultural census records for other years can provide similar information on farm-owning ancestors. You might even learn that your ancestor sold wood to help make his farm payments.

Dropped Calves and Hemp Fiber: The 1880 Agricultural Census

Unusual Entries
These two articles discuss an 1880 census enumeration that on the surface looks unusual; it is headed by a female with a husband also listed in the household. This two-part series discusses the likely reason for this specific enumeration and also includes discussion on additional reasons for this type of atypical enumeration.

An 1880 Female Head of Household

1880 Female Head of Household: Follow-up

1880 Search Interfaces
The 1880 census transcription is available for searching free at and at This two-part series discusses which site's interface is best for what type of research problem. Generally speaking, allows for greater flexibility for searching based upon family structure and allows for greater flexibility on wildcard searches. These two articles work through several examples showing the broad range of options available when both websites are used together.

1880 Online Strategies: Part I

1880 Online Strategies: Part II

1920 Census Index
This two-part series discusses my attempts to locate family members in the 1920 census. This index only indexes heads of households and others within the household with a surname other than that of the head of household. Techniques for finding those not specifically listed in the index are included.

Finding My 1920 People, Part I

Finding My 1920 People, Part II

1930 Census Index
This article discusses searches I performed on the every name index to the 1930 census at Some general search techniques are discussed along with several examples of finding duplicate enumerations for some individuals.

My 1930 Census Experiences

Wrap Up
Genealogists have a wonderful set of finding aids to census records that did not exist ten years ago. In addition to print indexes, genealogists can perform searches of online databases using a variety of techniques and “tricks.” Maybe one day I'll even find my elusive Ellen Butler in Missouri in 1870!

Michael John Neill is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is the Web columnist for the FGS FORUM and is on the editorial board of the Illinois State Genealogical Society Quarterly. He conducts seminars and lectures on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry Magazine and Genealogical Computing. You can e-mail him or visit his website, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

Copyright 2004,

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