Learn How to Use U.S. Census Records

September 4, 2018  - by 

U.S. census records can offer you a window into your ancestors’ stories—and clues about new relatives to add to your family tree. Here’s how to use U.S. census records to reconstruct your family history.

When searching for information about ancestors who lived in the United States, federal census records should be one of the very first sources you consult. Census records can help you reconstruct entire family groups and identify previously unknown relatives. Sometimes you can even discover interesting details and stories that help you better understand their lives.

Every major English-language genealogy website should have U.S. census records from 1790 to 1940, and the entire collections for these censuses are free to search on FamilySearch. So there’s no reason not to explore them!

Here’s more on what you should know about U.S. census records and how to search them:

Differences between U.S. Censuses

Censuses have been taken by the U.S. government every 10 years since 1790. Remarkably, nearly all have survived—except for the 1890 census, which was lost in a fire, and a few lost fragments from other years. The most recent census available to the public is the 1940 census.

Census details vary from year to year, with some of the more recent ones offering the most details. Since 1880, censuses can often help you reconstruct your family tree because they provide genealogy-rich information like names, relationships, approximate birth years, marital status, birthplaces, and parents’ birthplaces. Some details shed light on your ancestors’ immigration and naturalization, homeownership, literacy, education, childbearing history, neighborhood makeup, and more.

Changes in US Census records

1790 U.S. Census Record

Recent US census records

1940 U.S. Census Record

Older censuses aren’t quite so detailed. In 1850, 1860, and 1870, you’ll find each family member listed, but not their relationship to the head of the household. You can often guess at the family structure, though, since the father was supposed to be listed first, then the mother, then their children beginning with the oldest, then other relatives followed by nonrelatives, such as boarders or servants. (You’ll want to consult other records to confirm those inferred family relationships.)

Before 1850, censuses included only skeletal information about each household. The head of household is named, but others are tallied only by category, such as the number of free white males and females, enslaved people, and others. Often, you’ll need to use these census entries in combination with other records to reconstruct your family tree.

Tips and Tricks to Search U.S. Census Records

These tips will help you get the most out of U.S. census records for your genealogy.

1. Search for every relative in every census.

Different census entries for the same person may reveal unique information, so it’s worth finding and studying each one in which that person appeared. Details you learn from each one can help you more confidently recognize your relatives in the next entry you see.

For example, Andrew and Rose O’Hotnicky of Olyphant, Pennsylvania, first appear as a couple in 1910 with their newborn baby, Edward:

How to research genealogy using U.S. Census Records

All census entries shown here are from the population schedules for Pennyslvania, Lackawanna County. Digital images are from FamilySearch.org.

In 1920, 3 children are listed—but no Edward, who had died:

Search U.S. Census Records

In this entry, the parents appear on the bottom of one page, and the children appear on the next page; we’ve cropped and stitched them together for easier viewing. You may need to page forward or backward through the online images to see a family’s full entry.

Ten years later, in the 1930 census, Andrew’s widowed mother Caroline appears in their household:

U.S. Census Records and Genealogy Research

Learning Caroline’s identity makes it easier to jump back in time and identify Andrew in the 1900 census. Here he appears as a child in his mother’s household, along with several siblings and even his maternal grandfather (who, again, appears on the following page, so you have to page forward to see him in the household):

Where to find U.S. Census Records

By default, censuses generally reported the man as head of household (column 4). But here, Caroline’s marital status (reported in column 9) identifies her as a widow, so she is head of household. The last 2 columns shown reveal how many children Caroline had borne (11) and how many were still alive at the time (7). All 7 living children are named in this entry. If you wanted to reconstruct her entire family, you would look for evidence of her deceased spouse and children in earlier records.

2. Look for Variations in Entries

When you’re searching censuses, you may find relatives identified at different times under their first or middle names, by nicknames, or by their initials. Their ages may be reported inconsistently, too. Name spellings in original records especially vary before the 1900s and for immigrant families during the early 1900s. Names may also have been transcribed differently (Andrew’s surname has been indexed as O Hatnicky, Ohotinsky, Ohotoricky, and even Shotnicky.)

Sometimes your genealogy website search engine will recognize these variations and present them to you in your search results, which you can then click on to explore in more detail. Other times, you may need to search several name variations (and even different genealogy websites, where the indexing and search engine may be different) before you locate an ancestor’s entry.

3. Read the Entire Entry and Even Those of the Neighbors

If you read the details in census form columns further to the right than the snippets shown above, you’ll learn several more things about Andrew and Rose, including that their parents were Eastern European immigrants and that Andrew’s career evolved between censuses from coal mining to driving a fire truck. Studying the entries over the years also reveals that the couple lived for decades in the same neighborhood, surrounded by other working-class families of Eastern European descent.

Noticing those who lived nearby sometimes leads you to additional relatives. Rose’s maiden name was Krankota, as revealed by her marriage license application, but her parents weren’t named. However, in 1910, an older Krankota family lived on the same street as Rose and Andrew. The mother in that family reported having 4 living children, but only 3 lived at home. Further research revealed this to be Rose’s family of origin and helps expand the ancestry in her branch of the family tree.

For More on How to Use U.S. Census Records

Where to Explore U.S. Census Records

Try it yourself: Visit FamilySearch or another favorite genealogy website, and search for your relatives in U.S. census records. If you have a tree on the site, search from a relative’s individual profile (so you don’t have to enter all of their personal information), and limit your search results by record type to census records. Otherwise, enter a relative’s name in the main search box, and again limit search results to census records.


Sunny Morton

Sunny Morton teaches personal and family history to worldwide audiences. She's a Contributing Editor at Family Tree Magazine, past Contributing Editor at Lisa Louise Cooke's Genealogy Gems, and the author of How to Find Your Family History in U.S. Church Records (co-authored with Harold Henderson, CG); Story of My Life: A Workbook for Preserving Your Legacy; "Genealogy Giants: Comparing the 4 Major Websites," and hundreds of articles. She has degrees in history and humanities from Brigham Young University. Read her work at sunnymorton.com.

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  1. Another tip is to learn the original pronunciation of your immigrant ancestor’s name so you will know that Ohotnicky might also show up as Okotnitzki, depending on who the census taker was. Also bear in mind that cursive was very personal and I have found many instances where capital Ls were mistaken as capital Ss by transcribers, and vice versa. Consider all possibilities.

  2. Great list of tips! Thank you! I have an unrelated question regarding babies born in the early 1900’s. Were death certificates issued for infants that were stillborn and/or that died shortly after birth? I’m researching a cemetery and have not been able to find a lot of death certificates for the infants buried at this site. What would be a possible reason/some possible reasons for that? I greatly appreciate any guidance!

  3. would like to find information,on bertha haynsworth,younger age.Ebenezer and Charlotte rembert haynsworth were her guardian.Also Mt Olive AME church,2738 woodrow RD,sumter sc 29153

  4. Very nice article with lots of important points. Good review for the experienced and good information for the person just getting started. It is so important to look carefully at all of the information in the censuses and often we don’t read carefully across each line.

  5. Very interesting! I had not thought to follow the growth and losses in family that way. I will be sure to try it.

  6. Thank you for this instruction. It is an eye opener. I never took the time to to examine or compare census records and so I missed a bundle of good information, I plan to be more focused

  7. Thank you so much for this article. After I read it, I started going through the entire census of the area of the person I was searching for and by doing that I found my gggrandmother that I had been looking for for many years! The transcriber had read it as another name but I could tell that is was the name I was looking for. It certainly helps if you know the names of the people from the area you are searching in. So easy to make mistakes.

    Thanks again for the article. It has made a difference for me.

  8. On 1850 Census Margaret Gately is from Baltimore, Maryland…On 1860, 1870, etc. she is from Ireland.
    This is my grandmother. She was born 1843/I think…. in Roscommon, Ireland? OR, Baltimore, Maryland??

  9. The census records are not always correct because orphansvwere tsken into households of relatives as well as friends and neighbors. On the census records they tell the census records that it’s tgeur daughter/son and when the orphans grow up they are never told that they were taken into the household and were/are not kin. I found out that both my parents: dad born 1916 in Malvina MS and mom born 1920 in Greenville, Washington county, MS were orphaned!!