African Americans in the U.S. Federal Census, Locating Families (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2013. It is an excerpt from their course Research: African American Ancestors  by Michael Hait, CG. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Locating Your Family in the Federal Census

Once you have located a family member alive in 1940—whether yourself, your parents, grandparents, or your great-grandparents—you are ready to begin research in the federal census.

The first step is to locate your family in the 1940 census. The National Archives and Records Administration required the 1940 census be available for free online for the first few years. If you are using an online subscription service, there should be a search engine that will allow you to search for them by name. You can type the first and last names into the appropriate boxes as well as the year and place of birth or place of residence. If your family member bore a common name, it is best to add some of these additional details.

You should keep in mind the federal census often contains misspelled names and inaccurate ages. If you do not locate your family with the first search, try using wildcards (if supported by the website) by only typing the first three letters of the last name, followed by a *. For example, for the last name Jackson, you could search for Jac*. You can also try omitting the first name altogether.

Once you have located your family in the 1940 federal census, you should compile this information in a way that you can easily access it. The best way to do this is using the family group record described in a previous lesson. You can also download the digital image to store electronically in your chosen filing system.

The 1940 federal census provides the names, ages, places of birth, and relationships of each member of a household. These details should be recorded in your family group record. You will use this family group record to compare census years when working your way backward.

Please note, the federal census contains quite a bit of information that should not be ignored. These clues will help you identify sources for additional research. Using these clues will be explored in detail later.

Tracing Back Through the Recent Years

Once you have identified your family in the 1940 federal census, you can use the information for comparison with earlier censuses.

You will want to locate all of your family members in every federal census during their lives. Once you have found them in 1940, move backward to 1930. The 1930 census is not available free, so you will have to use a subscription website, such as Ancestry.com, Fold3, or the free website FamilySearch to locate them.

If you do not have access to any of the above subscription websites, locating your family will be more difficult. You will have to know the state in which the family resided in 1930, and search the microfilmed indexes created by the National Archives and Records Administration. The National Archives and Records Administration has indexed the states of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia, using a system called “Soundex”.

Soundex System

The Soundex system is a numerical representation of each surname, so that phonetically similar names bear the same Soundex number. To convert a name into Soundex, you begin with the first letter, then remove the remaining vowels (including H, W, and Y), and replace the remaining consonants with a number, following the chart below. A Soundex number will consist of the first letter and three digits. If your name has less than three consonants, use “0” to complete the three; if it has more, only give the first three. Also, if you have consecutive consonants with the same numerical code, you will only use it once.

1
B, F, P, V
2
C, G, J, K, Q, S, X, Z
3
D, T
4
L
5
M, N
6
R

To see some names converted to Soundex, take the following examples:

HAIT = H300
JACKSON = J250
DIGGS = D200
EDELEN = E345
LANCASTER = L522

You should use the same method as before to locate your family in the 1930 census. Each member of the household will be about ten years younger. You may find more or less people living in the household.

You should now have at least one family in two individual census records. Extract the information from the 1930 census into a separate family group sheet. With both records compiled into a similar format (the family group record) you should be able to easily compare the information.

You should use the same method as before to locate your family in the 1920 census. Each member of the household will be about ten years younger. You may find more or less people living in the household.

The same process should be repeated for the 1920, 1910, and 1900 federal census enumerations.

At some point, you may find the head of the 1940 household living as a child in his parents’ household. You may be able to identify the family conclusively but you will likely have to consult other records, such as a birth or death certificate, to confirm this relationship.

Once you have identified the previous generation, you should complete the same steps to locate the new ancestors in the federal census.

Supplementing the Census with Other Records

The federal census does not merely contain the family groups we have been using. Indeed, census records contain a wealth of additional clues, including land, immigration, and military information, that many researchers never learn to use.

It can be relatively simple to locate information on land ownership using the federal census. Beginning in 1850, the census recorded the value of real estate owned by inhabitants of each household. The census continued providing this information through 1870. The 1880 census did not record any land data, but the 1900 census reported whether each home was owned or rented; if owned, whether owned free or mortgaged; whether the home is a farm or a house; and, if a farm, its corresponding number on the farm schedule. The 1910 and 1920 census enumerations reported whether each home was owned or rented; if owned, whether free or mortgaged; and the number on the farm schedule. In 1930, the census provided even more data, reporting whether each home was owned or rented; the value of the home, if owned, or monthly rent, if rented; whether the home is a farm; and its corresponding number on the farm schedule.

If you find that your ancestor owned land, search the land records or deeds index for that county. You may be surprised at what you find!

The 1890, 1910, and 1930 federal censuses identified former soldiers. Many of these veterans served in the Civil War, and more information can be located among the military records.


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Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course Research: African American Ancestors offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.