Tired of squinting at census
microfilm? When microfilmed indexes and Sounds aren't yielding answers,
try a Web site offering searchable census indexes linked to digital
images of the original records - which opens up new ways to look for your
forebears. The two best, most comprehensive online collections:
• Ancestry.com <Ancestry.com >
offers images and every-name indexes for all available censuses, 1790
through 1930 (remember, however, that the 1790 to 1840 censuses name
only heads of household, so others don't show up in the indexes).
Search on any combination of first name, last name, state, county,
township and mother's or spouse's given name. You can specify an exact
search or use the Soundex system to find variant spellings. For later
censuses, add (depending on the census) a birthplace, birth year (plus
or minus up to 20 years), marital status, gender, race, immigration
year (plus or minus up to 20 years), father and mother's birthplace,
relation to head of household, and keywords.
• HeritageQuest Online <heritagequestonline.com>,
available free through many public libraries, has images for all the
censuses plus head-of-household indexes for 1790 through 1820, 1860,
1870, 1880 (partial), 1900 through 1920, and 1930 (partial). Search
options include first and/or last name, state, county, location, age
(with a 10-year range), sex, race and birthplace.
If you've tried
a simple search at one of these sites and come up empty, don't fret -
you've only just begun. Use these strategies to wade through the Web of
1. Search for different spellings. Your ancestor
could have assumed any number of identities in the census, so try a
Soundex search and spelling variations. Then try Omitting the first
name; your ancestor James may have been enumerated by his initials, the
nickname Jim or the abbreviation Jas. You can even use this approach to
hunt for possible ancestors you didn't know existed: Look for every
body with the right surname in the right time and place to be an
ancestor's missing parent, then try to make the link.
2. Skip the surname.
At Heritage Quest, you can search by first name only - for everybody
named Joel in 1820 Surry County, NC, for example. Especially for early
censuses with fewer total entries, that can be an effective strategy
(there are only five Joels in 1820 Surry County — one of them my
ancestor with his surname misspelled).
3. Omit the name entirely.
Ancestry lets you search without entering either a first or last name,
which can be more useful than you might think. You can start by
casting a pretty wide net here, then narrow the search if you're
swamped with hits. For example, you can search on a residence and place
birth, as I demonstrate on the next page, then specify an immigration
year, spouse's name or other parameter.
4. Switch sites.
Each census service has slightly different options and indexes. So if
you're lucky enough to have access to more than one census site, try
your stumped search on another one. At Ancestry.com, I had trouble
finding my ancestor Oscar Lundeen because his name was misspelled. But
HeritageQuest had him transcribed correctly, so I found him there on
the first try.
5. Find family and friends.
strike out searching for your ancestor in Ancestry.com's every-name
indexes, try looking instead for siblings or children in the same
household. If I'd searched instead for my grandmother Olga Lundeen in
1900, I would've found the whole family right away.
As a last
resort, if you've found an ancestor in one census but come up empty 10
years earlier, try looking for the neighbors' names. They may still
live near your elusive kin, or the whole neighborhood may have moved
from the same place. With the power of online census searching, there's
no reason ever to save “I give up!”
From the May 2007 issue of Family Tree Magazine.