Now What: Finding Ancestors in US Census Records

By David A. Fryxell Premium

Question: My Irish grandparents immigrated in 1921 with my father and uncle. The problem is, I can’t find them
in any census. Any ideas?

Answer: It’s frustrating when ancestors go “missing” in one US census, let alone two. Timing further complicates your challenge, as your family just missed the 1920 enumeration. Until the release of the 1950 census in 2022, you have only two years—1930 and 1940—in which to look.

Your first step should be to search for spelling variants. While tales of names being changed at Ellis Island are apocryphal, census enumerators did take liberties with spelling, as did our ancestors themselves. You can speed up and expand your search for spelling variants by using wildcards: When searching either the 1930 or 1940 censuses online at Ancestry.com, FamilySearch or Findmypast, substitute ? for any single character and * for any number of characters (including zero). For example, Brenn?n would find Brennan as well as Brennen, Brennin, and so on; while Brenn* would also find Brennigan and simply Brenn.

Also try a super-wide search at Ancestry.com, leaving one or both name fields blank and filling in what you do know: your relative’s birth year, Ireland as the birth place, and immigration year (for the 1930 census). Note that Ancestry.com has the 1940 census free to search and offers a good variety of search fields, even if you’re not a subscriber. If you’re overwhelmed by the results, try adding part of either name, possibly with wildcards.

If either son reached adulthood by 1940, he may be listed on his own that year. Peruse adjacent pages to see if the rest of the family lived nearby.

If your ancestors settled in a state that took its own census between federal counts, its 1925 and 1935 enumerations are worth a try. States taking 1925 censuses are Iowa, Kansas, New York, North Dakota and South Dakota. Florida, Rhode Island and South Dakota took 1935 censuses.

Finally, the era you’re searching was the heyday of city directories in many places. Check large genealogy websites and local libraries. Often you can find “missing” ancestors in directories, with enough residence information to reveal them in the census—browsing by address, if necessary.