Coming to Your Census

By Nancy Hendrickson Premium

Two new subscription sites promise the web-surfing genealogist’s holy grail: online images of all US census pages. Our exclusive hands-on review tests how well Genealogy and’s Images Online deliver and whether they’re worth your money.

Like most genealogists, I cut my teeth on census records. I remember stumbling through my first microfilm, wondering how I’d ever be able to read the handwriting. After finding my great-grandfather, I scribbled his information on a piece of scrap paper, then rewound the film, not looking any further. Thanks to my early neglect, I’ve had to revisit more census records than I care to admit.

Fortunately, my extra trips to the library will soon be a thing of the past. and are in the process of launching Web sites that will eventually contain digitized images of all the available federal censuses (1790 through 1920). What was once a dream has become reality — we can now search the census 24 hours a day, seven days a week without leaving home. Although I live only five minutes from a Family History Center, the thought of delving into family research at 10:30 on a Friday night is irresistible.

Unlike much genealogy information on the Web, however, the census databases won’t be free. Each will require a subscription, with costs ranging from $19.95 a quarter to $99.95 a year.

Are they worth it? Is this really the next great leap forward toward the dream of being able to do your genealogy on the Web (real genealogy, not just surfing sites and downloading GEDCOM files that may or may not be accurate)? Family Tree Magazine got an exclusive preview of both sites — here’s the lowdown on what they offer, how they work and how to make them work for you:

Census Tips

• Record the census year, microfilm number and roll or the URL of the Web site, state, county, township, page number, house or family number.

• Record information on the neighbors for several houses on either side of your ancestor. You never know when they might turn out to be an in-law or other family member.

• Copy census data exactly as you found it, even if you know it’s incorrect.

• Don’t assume the children belong to the couple they’re enumerated with. They may be grandchildren, nieces, nephews or cousins.

• Just because your ancestor isn’t in an index doesn’t mean they aren’t on the census. Published indexes can be inaccurate.

• Look for your family in every available census and abstract the data about everyone, not just your direct line.

• If the head of household is missing from a census year, don’t assume he died; he may have gone to live with one of his children.

• Copy everyone in the household, even if apparently not family members. It’s possible you’ll find a relationship at a later date.

• Copy the information in all rows and columns, even if you think it’s not important.

• Look for variant surname spellings in indexes. Our ancestors weren’t as concerned about spelling as we are.

• Look for phonetic variations of your surname. Vowels were frequently interchanged: i.e. Myer, Mier, Meyer, Mire.

• Watch for the Americanization of foreign-sounding names.

• Don’t assume all information is correct. If no one was home, the enumerator may have obtained the information from a neighbor.

<> is a joint project of Heritage Quest <> and SierraHome, makers of Generations genealogy software <>. In the works for more than a decade and still with no launch date set, this database promises to someday be the largest collection of primary source documents of any kind on the Internet. Once the entire census is online, will contain the digital equivalent of 12,555 rolls of microfilm — 3.5 terabytes of images and data (a terabyte is 1 trillion bytes).

The key to is meticulous attention to quality, detail and accuracy. First, only the best copies of census films are selected. Next, the film is re-shot and chemically enhanced in Heritage Quest’s laboratories. The film is then scanned, reviewed by technicians and digitally enhanced. The end result is as good an image as technology allows. For anyone who’s tried to read a bleached or darkened microfilm image, you’ll appreciate the painstaking work that went into the process.

In addition, annotations of genealogical significance have been added to various census images. For example, if a column or row was inadvertently omitted by someone who hand-copied an original census, it will be noted on the image. Because of errors in existing published indexes for the 1800 census, created a brand-new index, containing 5,000 names not found before in any published index.

It’s an incredibly ambitious project, with a goal of 98 percent accuracy and a boast of adding 500,000 new indexed names per week. But will genealogists ever actually get to enjoy it? The site’s launch was originally promised for late 2000, then postponed until early this year; as this issue went to press, a spokesperson said the rollout had been “put on indefinite hold pending further evaluation of the changing Internet climate.”

Let’s keep our fingers crossed. When Family Tree Magazine got a sneak peek at, it certainly whetted our appetitites.

The easiest way to find your ancestor in is to search the site using the Quick Search form. Enter a surname and the results will show everyone with that surname, listed by state, county and locality. You also can enter a specific census year and state.

The site also can be searched by census index, Soundex, location and National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) numbers. If you know the NARA series, roll and page number you want to view, these can be entered into the search form and the actual image will pop up on your screen. The promised Soundex search will generate the code for your surname, then allow you to search through digitized Soundex cards. (Soundex is a system that codes names to reduce spelling variations; for an explanation of Soundex, see <>.)

Once the census page you’re after is displayed, you can browse either backward or forward through that particular film to get a broader view of the neighborhood. You may find in-laws, siblings, parents, witnesses on wills or families who migrated with your family.

The most exciting promise of the site is its “sticky note” technology, the brainchild of senior designer and SierraHome founder Elon Gasper. This technology allows anyone using the site to attach a virtual “sticky note” to alert other researchers of their interest in a particular family or individual. The notes can contain corrections, queries, offers for help or notes on the availability of family photos — anything one researcher wishes to communicate to another.

According to Gasper, “sticky notes” will help create a living Web community, where people can research in clusters. “This technology will create an echo of the original neighborhoods,” he says. “But instead of raising barns, we’re going to help their descendants get together to raise information.” offers a $29.95 quarterly or $99.95 yearly subscription.

< >, already the Web’s leading subscription-based genealogy site, launched its US federal census Images Online service last year, with an initial offering of the entire 1790 census, followed by parts of the 1920 census. Eventually, subscribers will be able to access all 10 million scanned images and 450 million names from the 1790 through 1920 censuses. Ancestry will continue to post census images on a weekly basis, with the full collection promised online sometime this spring.

After obtaining census microfilm from NARA, Ancestry cleaned the film and then scanned it at a high resolution. The images were scanned at 256 shades of gray, which can result in better quality than images captured in simple black and white. For more accurate searches, Ancestry also will be upgrading its present census indexes.

To search the Ancestry site, just enter the surname you’re searching for in the census index form; if you want a more refined search, you can filter by state, county, township or Soundex. (If you’re familiar with searching free or other subscription parts of, you already know how.) The results are returned in alphabetical order by state. Once you’ve located your ancestor, click on the “Image” icon to see a scan of the census page. From each page, you can browse backward or forward through the roll.

You can view the census pages either as a standard Web page (HTML) or using a proprietary image format called MrSID. A product of LizardTech, the MrSID format allows compression of large, high-resolution images into small files, while maintaining the quality of the original. The viewer for the MrSID files is available as a free plug-in for your browser at <>. Although you can view the image in your browser without MrSID, using the plug-in gives you more options for controlling the image. You’ll find an online manual at <>.

In the HTML view, you can zoom in and out and pan across the page (move your cursor to different parts of the image). MrSID lets you do the same, plus gives you high-resolution printing, jumping between zoom levels, a zoom selection tool and the ability to save census images. The default save format is a MrSID format (*.sid), but you can also save as a Windows bitmap file (*.bmp) or a JPEG (*.jpg). You can also rotate the image 90, 180 or 270 degrees, or flip vertically or horizontally. If you’re into digital imaging, you may enjoy saving the image and experimenting with your own enhancement via PhotoShop or other imaging software.

When searching the 1790 census, it’s interesting to have the system search for a surname in all locales, just to get an idea of where people with your surname were located. The US population was small enough in 1790 that you can do this kind of search without being overwhelmed with the results (unless, of course, you’re searching for “Smith”). A search for the surname “Knox,” for example, returned a manageable 135 hits.

Current subscribers do not automatically get access to the census images (or vice versa), though the company has offered various discounted deals to existing customers. Census image subscription rates are $19.95 for a quarterly or $59.95 for a yearly subscription. A yearly $99.95 bundle is available that does include the federal census images along with access to Ancestry’s thousands of other subscription databases.

So what?

So what’s the big deal about the federal census, and why might you want to shell out up to $100 a year to be able to view it online? Most genealogists consider the federal census the most important primary source for US research. In fact, census records often form the foundation for research strategies. Once you know where an ancestor lived during a particular census year, you then can begin the search for marriage, land, probate and other records.

Beginning in 1790, and every 10 years thereafter, the government has conducted an enumeration, or counting, of its citizens, initially for the purpose of apportioning seats in the House of Representatives. Although the first census listed only the names of heads of household and the number of people living in each household, each subsequent census painted a more detailed picture of the family unit.

In 1850, the unit of enumeration shifted from the head of household to the individual. Now, everyone living in the household was listed by name, along with place of birth. The 1850 census is frequently the jumping-off place for earlier research.

The most current available census, from 1920, includes marital status, native language, naturalization information and profession. The 1920 census was also indexed by surnames within a household using the Soundex coding system. (The 1930 census will become available in April 2002, when the 72-year privacy time limit expires.)

You can use census records to locate your ancestors both in place and time. The 19th-century censuses can pinpoint migratory patterns during a period in American history when the population was on the move. In my own research, for example, children in one family were listed as having been born in Ohio, Illinois and Missouri.

For more on the census and other federal records, see the December 2000 issue of Family Tree Magazine and the resources listed on these pages.

Are they worth it?

Census information is freely available to anyone, after a 72-year-waiting period. Since microfilmed copies are available at Family History Centers across the country and at larger libraries, why subscribe to these new sites?

For me, it’s convenience and time. I like logging onto the Internet at any hour and being able to do library-quality research. Moreover, if online indexes continue to improve in accuracy, the time saved in finding census records will be phenomenal. No longer will I have to crank through pages and pages of microfilm, looking for an ancestor who slipped through the cracks of a printed index. And locating the town an ancestor lived in allows me to delve more quickly into other primary documents.

The subscription costs seem small compared to the benefits of furthering my research. Besides, I’m just itching to dig deeper into these two new sites, and I know just which elusive branch of the family I’m starting with.

If I had to pick just one site to subscribe to, which would it be? Both for quality and technology, the nod has to go to If you’re already an subscriber and like its searching, however, the convenience of one-stop database shopping might outweigh other considerations.

Moreover, I think these two census projects are only the tip of the iceberg in posting primary sources online. Already, individuals are scanning and uploading wills, probate files and land records; now, the commercial sites are tackling the big projects like census and military records. The trend is clear — move over, microfilm, and make way for an onslaught of primary source documents online.

Find it on the Web

National Archives and Records Administration Online Information

<>: Includes clues to look for in each census year.

Census Research Forms

<>: Free forms, customized by census year, for recording census information.

Historical United States Census Data Browser

<>: Compile your own census data.

US Census Bureau

<>: The official site for the US Census; no historical census data, however.

USGenWeb’s Census Project

<>: The ambitious goal on this volunteer site is to transcribe the entire federal census and make it freely available on the Internet.

Census Links

<>: Thousands of links to transcribed census records.

Secrets of the Census

<>: Article on census basics.

Every Ten Years

<>: Find out what was asked on each of the federal censuses.

Guides to Federal Census

<>: Several census-related research guides.

On the Bookshelf

The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy edited by Loretto Dennis Szucs and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking (Ancestry), a reference work with a chapter on research in census records.

The Census Book: A Genealogist’s Guide to Federal Census Facts, Schedules and Indexes by William Dollarhide (Heritage Quest), which reviews census schedules and identifies all known census indexes.

Map Guide to the U.S. Federal Censuses, 1790-1920 by William Dollarhide (Genealogical Publishing Co.), with maps showing state, territorial and county boundaries for all states for each census year.

First Steps in Genealogy by Desmond Walls Allen (Betterway Books), a beginner’s guide with information on locating and using census records.

Historical Statistics of the States of the United States compiled by Donald B. Dodd (Greenwood Publishing Group), which tracks historical trends based on 18 census data items.

Population of States and Counties of the United States: 1790-1990, From the Twenty-One Decennial Censuses (US Government Printing Office, available from <>)