Surfing the Census

By David A. Fryxell Premium

Finding an ancestor in the census is a bit like traveling through time: All of a sudden, you’re looking at a snapshot of a once-every-10-years moment in history. Depending on the year and the questions the enumerator asked, you might see not only your ancestor’s name and essential family data, but also information about his education, occupation and even (in the 1930 census) whether his household owned a radio.

Until recently, though, making that trip into the past could be as challenging as anything H.G. Wells’ hero grappled with in The Time Machine. Wells’ inventor may have faced Morlocks, but those monsters have nothing on a balky microfilm reader. To find your ancestors on census microfilm, first you have to get the microfilm, which can take time if you don’t live near a library that’s invested in a complete set of the census. And you have to get the right roll — no small matter when more-recent censuses fill many hundreds of microfilm reels (2,667 for the 1930 count). Doing so requires an understanding of Soundex (an index based on the pronunciation of names) and even mapping your ancestors by enumeration district.

Wouldn’t it be much simpler and faster just to search for your forebears on the Internet, from the comfort of your own home? Ideally, then you could view not only a transcription of your find, but also a digitized image of the actual census page, which you easily could save or print.

That’s no longer the stuff of science fiction. For the first time in history, genealogists can search indexes of every extant decennial federal census from 1790 to 1930 and view scanned images of the surviving pages — all online.

Jettisoning the microfilm research for online census searches can be a bit tricky, however, and potentially expensive. But if you know your way around the online census landscape, you can find your ancestors’ enumerations this newfangled way. Depending on the year and locality you’re researching, you may even be able to do it for free. Just think of your Web browser as your trusty time machine — we’ll tell you how to set it to zoom into yesteryear.

Links to the Past

As spoiled as genealogists have become by the wealth of primary sources online, you might expect to find the whole census at the Web site of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) <>, which is, after all, the official keeper of such documents. Alas, you’d be disappointed — NARA has no actual census data on its site. But it does make a handy starting place for learning about the census, and you quickly can see what states and counties were enumerated each year. Surf to <> and click on Research Room, then Genealogy, then How to Use Census Catalogs. See also < schedules/1790_1890_federal_population_ census.html> to get up to speed on the census.

But don’t stop your time machine there. Scattered across the Internet, you’ll find census indexes, which can at least point you to the right microfilm roll and page, and sometimes even online transcriptions and images of census pages. The indexes may contain actual census data, not just names and page numbers. Of course, you’ll still want to confirm such data by looking at the actual pages. Images of census pages are scarcer online, except at subscription sites — though more free pages are being posted every day. The ideal is a searchable index that’s linked to images: You simply click on a name in your results and zip to the actual page.

To start finding census indexes, transcriptions and images, turn to a directory such as Cyndi’s List <>. Links to census sites vary widely by year. Generally, the pickings are richest for 1850 to 1880 — after the forms began listing all family members, but before the population grew too large for volunteer transcribers. Online offerings vary by place, too: If your ancestors were in Surry or Stokes County, NC, in 1790, for example, Cyndi’s List can point you to alphabetized head-of-household lists at <˜chesnut/pages/nsurry.htm> and <˜chesnut/pages/nstokes.htm>. But you’re out of luck here for any other North Carolina county, or for counties in most other states in 1790. Still, it’s worth browsing — you might get lucky.

Several other sites containing nothing but census links have sprung up: Check out <>, <> and <>. All three can be useful jumping-off points, and they contain many more census links than Cyndi’s List. Most of the additional links, however, either go to subscription sites such as or to the transcriptions and donated images of the USGenWeb project <>, whose volunteers have been putting genealogical goodies online since 1996.


Volunteer Efforts

The USGenWeb files, which actually reside at RootsWeb <>, represent by far the richest collection of free online census data. But figuring out where to look for USGenWeb’s census files has gotten complicated. Its two longtime census projects have been relegated to the bottom of a page, with this note: “There are two census projects. Both call themselves USGenWeb Census Projects, but neither are associated with The USGenWeb Project.”

Nonetheless, both are worth a look:

• The USGenWeb Census Project at <> (whose name sports a ®) is hosted by USGenNet, a splinter group from the original USGenWeb. Here you can click on a list of states for a chart of available transcriptions, organized by county and then by year; a “view” button indicates scanned images. The site’s handy search form lets you hunt for ancestors in all transcriptions.

• The other USGenWeb Census Project, over at <˜census>, is organized first by state and then by census year; you can’t check, for example, all the available transcriptions for Bibb County, Ala., on a single page. A text link takes you to any online images.

What will you find at these seemingly feuding sites? A quick side-by-side comparison reveals that they don’t share transcription files; ongoing transcription by volunteers is evidently proceeding separately. Bibb County, for example, has a complete transcription plus images for 1830 at <>, but nothing for 1840. Over at <˜census>, you’ll find images but no transcription (it’s been “assigned”) for 1830, and an 1840 transcription is underway but not yet posted.

The image links at both these sites take you to the same batch of files — which are the core of yet a third “USGenWeb” census undertaking, still with official backing:

• The USGenWeb Archives (which has a ™ after the name) at <˜usgenweb/cen_img.htm> has posted census-page images donated by individuals with the cooperation of four small publishers. It’s now seeking volunteers to help index the images. The site covers all states except Alaska, Connecticut, Hawaii, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Vermont and Wyoming, plus the District of Columbia, though some states have only a handful of counties/years. The images (standard GIF files) are generally clear and easy to save or print, but you don’t get any of the viewing tools, such as zoom, that you’ll find on subscription sites.

Other downsides: There’s no way to search the names in the image files, and you can’t click from an index to the associated census page. The image files are labeled by page; for 1880, 1900, 1910 and 1920 censuses, the file name includes both the enumeration district and the sheet number. That means you’ll have to use an index file either on this site or one of the other “USGenWeb” sites to locate an ancestor’s name, then take that info and use it to pick the right page image. (If you know your ancestor’s town and street, you also can identify the enumeration district at <>.) Don’t be afraid to go back and forth between the sites, using a transcription from one site to find an image on another (remember, the images are ultimately the same files).

Believe it or not, there’s yet another way to search for ancestors in USGenWeb census files. You can use the fast and flexible national and state search engines found at <˜usgenweb/ussearch.htm> and <>. Assuming you know at least your ancestor’s state, the state search is probably best for census hunting: Just click the radio button for the state, then use terms such as “Wright County” and census to find, for example, all the census transcriptions for Wright County, Minn. You also can narrow your search by including a census year — or swing for the fences and search for an ancestor’s name, keeping in mind that you may need to search on several spelling variations. A Minnesota search for Erickson and “Wright Co.” and census and 1870, for example, would take you to a transcription from French Lake, in Wright County, Minn., where you’d find the family of Nils and Christine Erickson. Use Edit>Find or Ctrl-F (command-F on a Mac) to quickly locate the subject of your search on a long Web page.

Keep in mind that USGenWeb doesn’t have transcriptions of all censuses from all states and counties for all years. If you don’t find Great-great-grandpa here, it doesn’t mean he wasn’t enumerated; it probably just means nobody’s volunteered to transcribe that census yet. You may need to turn to other sources to find him in the census — but don’t start threading that microfilm just yet.


State Sources

If your ancestors were considerate enough to live in the right state, you might find their census records at one of many online endeavors undertaken by individual states and state archives. Part of a growing trend toward making state genealogical information available online, these sites’ offerings range from a smattering of counties and years to, in the notable case of Nevada, every available federal census through 1920 — 310,000 entries in all. Some cover special state or territorial censuses beyond the regular federal head count.

Just as in real estate, however, the key here is location, location, location. With ancestors in the right place at the right time, you can strike it rich with these state census sites, mostly from government sources but some from enterprising citizens:

• The Maryland State Archives <> lets you search indexes of the 1776 and 1778 state censuses, the 1870 federal census (22 counties plus Baltimore) and the 1880 federal census (Anne Arundel County only).

• Washington state’s Historical RecordsSearch <> lets you scour territorial census records from 1847 to 1892, plus the entire 1910 federal census of Washington. A new advanced search lets you narrow your query by pretty much any field in the census, and you can use Soundex to catch spelling variations. The state’s posting scans of original census pages at < originals.aspx>. You’ll need a free DJVU plugin — it installs automatically — to view the images, which aren’t linked to the indexes.

• We should all be so lucky as to have ancestors in Nevada, where the State Historic Preservation Office <> has made Nevada the first state to put all its federal census data online — 1860, 1870, 1880, 1900, 1910 and 1920 (Nevada’s 1890 census, like most of that year’s data, was lost in a fire). You can search by any field in a given census. Let’s hope Nevada next tackles its 1930 census, which hadn’t been released when the project began.

• You can find frontier ancestors at the Utah Census Search <˜nelsonb/census_search.htm>, which covers 1850 to 1880. Remember that the Utah Territory covered parts of adjacent states, so give this a try even if your ancestors didn’t live within Utah’s present-day boundaries. Depending on the year, results might show age and birthplace, as well as where to find a person on actual census pages.

• The Library of Michigan <> hosts a searchable index of family names in the 1870 census of Michigan. You can narrow your search by county or township, and use wildcards on both first and last names. Better yet, the library has started posting scanned census pages in PDF format (you’ll need the free Adobe Reader software <> to view them), which will be linked to search results.

• The Colorado State Archives <> has an online index to names in the 1870 census of that state. It’s not searchable; you click on an alphabetical range such as “Clark-Collin” to see each portion of the index.

• A RootsWeb goodie rather than a state-sponsored project, the 1860 Dakota Territory census can be searched by surname at <>.

• The North Dakota State University Institutefor Regional Studies <> has a searchable database of the 1885 Dakota Territory census, covering all of present-day North Dakota. You can narrow your search by country or state of birth or by county of residence.

• The Kansas State Historical Society ‘s site includes a partial index of the 1895 state census at <>.



Priceless Data—Free

Still striking out or too penny-pinched to subscribe for census data? You may yet find your ancestors online, depending on the year you’re researching. The full 1790 and 1880 censuses, for example, are online for free.

• The popular FamilySearch site <> lets you search every name in the 1880 federal census. Results include birth year and place, occupation, marital status, race, head of household’s name (with a link to that person’s entry), and father’s and mother’s birthplaces. From the results page, you can click straight to the census image on — if you’re a subscriber. This unusual arrangement sprang from a deal that allowed to add FamilySearch’s 1880 index to its own online offerings. [Note: FamilySearch is rapidly adding census images and indexes to the Record Search.]

• Though access to HeritageQuest Online <> isn’t exactly free to subscribing institutions, it is to their patrons. On this Web site, you can view head-of-household indexes and images for 1790 to 1820, 1860, 1870, 1890 (fragments), 1900 to 1920 and part of 1930. Find out if your local library or genealogical society subscribes. Some institutions even let you access the site from home for free.

Paid Access

Subscription sites come tantalizingly close to indexing every census year, with links from search results to page images. As the chart at left shows, you can’t quite get it all from a single subscription, even though the two powerhouse paid sites, and, are now corporate siblings.’s US Census Collection costs includes images of all extant federal censuses, with linked indexes for 1790 to 1820, 1860, 1870, 1890 (fragments) and 1900 to 1920 (partial). All of’s census indexes are head-of-household only (except for 1890) — an important difference from the majority of’s indexes. Search the collection and other data using its Family Finder (click on the Search tab), or drill down to an individual state and year to search by name or jump to the index page containing a particular surname. You can browse images by county, but you can’t narrow your search by county. The images themselves (from HeritageQuest Online) are typically crisp and clear, with better contrast than’s, but you don’t get any fancy zooming tools or other viewing gizmos. Your only option is a smaller image designed to fit on a page for printing.

Oddly, the US Census Collection isn’t’s only census offering. The Web site offers the 1900 census as a separate subscription — though it’s almost as pricey as the site’s full census collection. Until recently, was the only source for a 1900 census index (head of household) — hence the 1900-only deal. Its sibling and former competitor has now begun its own every-name index for that year.

A similarly “grandfathered” census trove on is the 1850 head count, which is part of its Genealogy Library subscription. Since this was the first census to go beyond listing only heads of household, it’s a particularly valuable tool for 19th-century research. You can search the 1850 census via Genealogy Library — either as part of an overall search or by clicking through to the first page and selecting Search This Book — even though you can’t via the US Census Collection. In the online census world, the right hand never seems to know what the left is doing.

Genealogy Library has a couple of other census-related “books” that might make it worth your money: Published indexes for the census years 1790 through 1840, plus 1860 and 1870. These are searchable either as part of the overall “library” or individually.

The best deal and onlycomplete online census package is at Some users prefer the crisp, high-contrast images at to the grayer versions on But otherwise,’s search is more flexible and powerful, its viewing tools are more high-tech, and its indexing coverage has overtaken that of its cross-corporate competitor. offers images of every census year and every-name indexes for 1850 to 1930. (All census indexes for 1790 through 1840 show only heads of households, because those were the only people recorded.) puts the entire US census at your fingertips — index and images alike. Depending on the census year, also gives you unprecedented searching power, enabling you to zero in on a hard-to-find ancestor when spelling variations have failed and you’re half-blind from browsing. For example, you can search the 1880 census by a person’s birth year and place, his parents’ birthplaces and his occupation. If you knew your mystery ancestor was a carpenter living in Ramsey County, Minn., and that he was born about 1845 in Maine, you could zoom in on H.H. Dickey, a transplanted Mainer aged 35 in 1880. One more click takes you to an image of his census entry — and guess what? He’s living as a lodger right next door to a J.W. Dickey, age 44. If you already knew, say, that J.W. Dickey was a brother of your unnamed ancestor, you’d have pretty good proof H.H. is your man.

This example might sound frivolous, but in practice, the ability to search on fields beyond name and place puts enormous power in the hands of brick-wall-burdened genealogists. In your quest for H.H. Dickey, for example, you quickly could search the 1860 census in Maine for Dickeys ages 14, 15 and 16 (it’s best to “bracket” ages, lest you miss your man by one year). Sure enough, there’s Henry H. Dickey, age 16, living in Franklin County, Maine. When you click through to the image of his census page, you find him with his parents, John and Lucy, and his brother, John W., who already was working as a carpenter. How many rolls of microfilm would you have had to crank through to find that much that fast? Indeed, if you really had only the information in our Minnesota search example, finding him at all in 1880 would have been practically impossible by brute force at the microfilm reader.

That’s the future of online census research, and it’s coming to your desktop at a lightning clip. Once you’ve taken your research for a ride in this time machine, you won’t want to go back to microfilm.
From the April 2005 Family Tree Magazine