The Census and Genealogy

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Where Did They Live?

The county is the division of government where you begin to look for your ancestors in official records, so first determine in which counties your ancestors' towns belong. If their town has disappeared from current maps, look up the town in a gazetteer. There may be several towns of the same name; be sure to get the one in the area where your ancestors lived. Gazetteers can often be found in state or university libraries. An 1895 United States gazetteer is online at For more resources, check Cyndi's List under “Maps, Gazetteers & Geographic Information.”

Tree Tips

Review the material you already have on your ancestors. You may find the county of residence among the family papers, on death certificates, in obituaries, or in city directories.

The closer you can locate the residence for your ancestors, whether street address, township, or ward, the more quickly your search is likely to go. However, don't be discouraged if those are the very things you are hoping to uncover by searching the census. You will be successful; it will just take a little longer. If you are unable to zero in on a county, the search is not hopeless. Examine the state census indexes carefully for your ancestors' surnames. You can often determine the county from those indexes by noticing where there are clusters of the surname. The addition of searchable online census indexes makes it possible to sometimes find an ancestor even if you do not know the state. However, be aware that if the name is a common one, you may get too many returns to narrow down to a reasonable number to check.

Which Census to Search First?

Because of privacy laws, the latest census available for research is the 1930 census. Generally, you will start your research with the most recent censuses, 1930, 1920, 1910, or 1900, and track the individuals back through each census taken during their lifetimes. The objective is to conduct a complete census search for each individual on your list. You may wonder why you need to keep getting additional censuses when you found them in one census listing. There are three main reasons: You want to compare the data you find, the composition of the household may change, and each census has different information that can lead you to other records.

Last Touches for Your List

Your research list should now be a list of individuals with some indication of the census years in which you may find them listed, the probable counties and states in which they lived during those years, and the most recent available census on which you might expect to find them. At this point, to prepare for your search for the actual census enumerations, it's time to code the surname for each individual on your list that you will be searching for in the censuses of 1930, 1920, 1910, 1900, and 1880. (The 1890 population census is virtually nonexistent, nearly all of it having been destroyed by a fire, January 21, 1921, in the Commerce Department building.)

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Genealogy © 2005 by Christine Rose and Kay Germain Ingalls. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.


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