How to Find Your Ancestors in US Federal Census Records

By Emily Anne Croom Premium

Starting with the census

Besides being full of information about your ancestors, U.S. federal census records can be entertaining. Watch for unusual occupations, notes the census taker added and unique personal names: I’ve found Easter Hare, Bright Bird, Missouri Rivers, Green House and others. 

Federal census records start in 1790, just after the federal government was created. Since then, the census has been taken every 10 years to determine apportionment in the House of Representatives. At first, census questions were limited—basically, the head of household’s name, the number of free males and females in the household and the number of slaves. 

By 1850, the census named all free persons with their ages and birthplaces (country or state). The 1870 census was the first to name the recently freed slaves and show their family groups. Beginning in 1880, the census gave the birthplace (country or state) of each person’s parents and, importantly, the relationship of each person to the head of household: wife, son, granddaughter, mother-in-law, etc. The 1900 census gave the month and year of birth.

Early census records might be missing for a few areas here and there, and the 1890 census was almost entirely lost after records were damaged in a fire. 

Special censuses

In addition to the population census schedules, some supplemental schedules exist, mostly for 1850 to 1880. They may give details of each farm and manufacturing business as well as deaths that occurred during the year prior to the census. Separate slave schedules exist for 1850 and 1860, which name slave owners with ages (but not names) of the enslaved. (Our African-American Genealogy Cheat Sheet explains how you can use slave schedules to search for black ancestors during slavery.)

How to find ancestors in census records

Because of a 72-year privacy period, the 1940 census is the most recent one available for public research. Although the census did occasionally miss people, records are remarkably complete and are a great way to build the structure for your family tree.
Look for your ancestors in every census taken during their lifetimes, working backward from the most recent. Where are census records? You can search them online by name at subscription websites including, MyHeritage and Findmypast. The free FamilySearch has digitized census records and/or indexes. Your library or local FamilySearch Center may provide free access to these databases.
You also can research census records on microfilm at many public and university libraries, the Family History Library in Salt Lake City,  FamilySearch Centers, and the National Archives and its branches.
Although it’s possible to find a person just by searching for a name, knowing basic details about him or her—name, age during that census year, family members’ names, and state, county and town of residence—will help you identify the right person. Even in the same town, many people had the same name and age. Keep in mind that census takers didn’t ask for name spellings or proof of details provided, so information could appear differently from how you expect.

Ancestor information to look for in the census

When you find your ancestral family in a census record, note everyone in the household and all the information about each person. From this information, you can estimate birth and death dates, marriage dates, migration patterns and relationships. For example, an 8-year-old in the 1850 census would have been born about 1842. 
Also look at other families in the neighborhood, especially with the same surname. Ancestors often lived near relatives, and immigrants might live near cousins and neighbors from the “old country.” Studying potential extended family gives you a better picture of the family you’re researching. 

More resources for researching genealogy in US censuses


Unlock the treasures in all the records you can find with our Ultimate Guide to Genealogy Records eBook!

Discover the best genealogy records using the tips and strategies in this guide, which shows you how to find and use census records, birth records, marriage records and more.