Using Ancestry: Census Search Review, by Juliana Smith

We all probably have at least one of them. In my case, there are several. They’re those families for whom you’ve searched and searched and searched, but are still unable to locate in the census. You’ve pulled out all the stops, repeated the searches over and over, and spent more late nights than you’d care to admit trying to coax them to appear on the screen. Yet they steadfastly refuse.

For those of us who have been researching for a long time, we may know the tricks, and think we’ve tried it all, but sometimes it’s a good idea to review and see if there’s something we missed.

Are You Searching Direct?
If I’m missing an ancestor in a census, rather than trying to catch them in a big global search “net,” I go right to that particular census year and search it directly.  At, the census search forms differ from year to year based on what information is searchable in each index. More recent census years often have more fields that can be used to zero in on your ancestor. Just remember not to fill in too much search criteria, or you risk ruling out your ancestor’s entry. Start with a broad search and then rotate in new search criteria until you get a manageable number of hits.

List Your Attempts
When you’re working with a lot of options, it’s easy to miss one if you don’t keep track. The 1930 U.S. Federal Census search page at Ancestry has seventeen search options, sixteen of which you could use to locate your hidden ancestors (assuming you don’t know the microfilm number). When you’re trying out variations and combinations of search criteria in each field, it can be confusing. Without keeping track, it’s easy to miss that “magic combination.” Keep track of which searches you have performed and review the list periodically to look for combinations you haven’t tried. Even if you give up for a while, as you learn new information about the family, when you revisit the list, you’ll realize you haven’t performed a search using that new tidbit.

No Last Name
It seems like most of the problems I have in locating my elusive ancestors come from misspelled or mis-transcribed surnames. But yet, I often find myself still using surname variations as part of my search criteria. That can be a roadblock and I have to remind myself to try leaving it out completely.

This week, I was talking to my uncle, who is also interested in family history. He was telling me how he was unable to find his family in 1930. He knew family names, ages, and where they were living, but with searches focusing on variations of the surname Barnby, he was still coming up empty.

I searched for one of the children, Charles, using only the given name, and entered his parents’ given names of Henry and Mary, specifying only the location of Stark County, Ohio. There they were indexed as Bamer. When I glanced at the image, I could see how this mistake was made. Upon closer inspection, it appears that the name written was actually Barnes, instead of Barnby.

Here were two layers of problems with the surname. It was written wrong by the enumerator and then indexed incorrectly, further corrupting the name. In addition, all three names–Bamer, Barnes, and Barnby–have different Soundex codes, so a Soundex search wouldn’t have found the family. A wildcard search for Bar* would have missed them as well. (For wildcard searches at Ancestry, an asterisk (*) represents 0-6 characters and a question mark (?) represents one character. Neither can be used in the first three letters of the name.)

The previous example is a good reminder to learn the Soundex codes for the surnames and common variations you’re searching. (An easy way is to use the Soundex Converter at That way when you enable the Soundex search functionality (by selecting Soundex from the drop-down menu for Spelling), you know what searches you are covering. If a common variation of your ancestor’s name has a different code, you’ll want to do a separate search for each code.

My uncle told me he had actually searched for Barnes as a variation of Barnby. Looking at the letters, it’s easy to see how “rn” may have been interpreted as an m. Look at the letters in the names you are searching for. What might one letter or a pair of letters be confused with? Try imitating handwriting styles used in census images in that area. (I’ve found one of the best ways to imitate some enumerators’ handwriting is to put the pen between my toes, spin around a few times blindfolded, and then try to write it. If that doesn’t work tie a pen to your pet’s paw and let them take a whack at it.)

Names and Dates
In another example, my boss was telling me about a family she had been unable to locate. The surname was Jones and in addition to the surname being mis-transcribed, several family members’ given names were wrong as well. In this case, one of the siblings of her ancestor was named Abner and she knew he had been born in 1921 in Utah. I entered only the first name Abner, his birth year, and Utah in the appropriate fields and he turned up, the only Abner born in Utah in 1921–enumerated with the last name Dones.

Track a Neighbor
You’ve probably heard professionals advise you to make note of the neighbors of your ancestor. This is good advice. Not only could they be related or turn up as witnesses or sponsors in other records, but they can sometimes be used to locate your ancestors. If you have an ancestor in 1880, but are unable to locate them in 1870, despite strong evidence that suggests they had been in the area at that time, look around at the neighbors from 1880 and try a search for one of them. Perhaps the handwriting on their name was easier to read, and their entry fared better than that of your ancestor.

Older neighbors, who would have likely had their home for a few years are good candidates for this. Also, people who owned their home, rather than renters, are more likely to have been the same place through more than one enumeration. Renters, particularly when you’re searching in an urban environment, often moved more frequently.

Are They Really There?
So you have them in their hometown in 1860, and there again in 1880, but you can’t find them in 1870. Did you ever consider the possibility that they moved away for a time, only to return? Perhaps an economic hardship caused them to leave for a time to find work. Or maybe there was an event that damaged their property and they had to move in with relatives for a time, until they could raise money to rebuild. Or maybe they went in search of an opportunity that just didn’t pan out, so they returned to the area where other family members had remained. There are a lot of reasons why your ancestors may have moved on for a bit, only to return. Investigate the history of the area in which they lived for clues, and broaden your search horizons by using names, ages, and search criteria other than location. You may find them someplace unexpected.

It’s also possible that they were missed by the census taker. Remember that in rural areas especially, the route of the enumerator might not have been as simple as walking door to door, up and down the block. They would have been traveling through areas with few or no roads and a house off the beaten track might have been missed entirely.

But don’t give up without a good fight. Census records give us a wonderful look into our ancestors’ households and the clues we find in them can really push our research forward. So dust off one of those elusive ancestors and challenge yourself to locate them once and for all!

Click here for a printer friendly version of this article.

Juliana Smith has been an editor of newsletters for more than eight years and is author of “The Ancestry Family Historian’s Address Book.” She has written for “Ancestry” Magazine and wrote the Computers and Technology chapter in “The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy,” rev. 3rd edition. Juliana can be reached by e- mail at, but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.

33 thoughts on “Using Ancestry: Census Search Review, by Juliana Smith

  1. Thank you for the article. I am having an awful job trying to trace a relative who went to US/Canada around 1912. Hopefully with these tips I might narrow him down.

  2. EXCELLENT article. I’ve tried a lot of those ideas, but you gave me some new ones. “The game is afoot” – I’m back to trying to find those two different households!

  3. When you find a wrong name use the feature “Comments and Corrections”, “Misspelled or alternate names” to make a correction. This will spare other researchers the trouble you went through, plus making it easier for you to get back to the right place as well.

  4. Using your No Last Name search, I found today my gguncle Alexander B. Whyte and family in 1910 census. Had them in 1900, 1920, 1930. Plugged in “Alexander B.” b. 1873 NJ, d. OH, and there he was, listed as “Alex B. VEGHTE!” Spouse Albena H. was transcribed as “ALEMA.” Alex was from Scottish family whose men were largely stonemasons/carvers/sculptors. He was first building supt. at normal school which later became Kent State U., organized the first baseball team, first fraternity, and was much revered over the years as “Dad Whyte.”
    An 1880 census transcription lists him as “Alex Andrew,” when closer scrutiny of the actual image shows the enumerator wrote the name “Alex” then lifted his pen and started again with “Ander” separating the syllables. Many thanks for this valuable tip! Ann Cummings, Clayton, IN

  5. Juliana, I would like to ask what special clues do you have for researching the last name of Smith? So many hits come up, how to get it narrowed down to precisely what you want without elimination of important information?

  6. One family I could not find was there all the time. I used the browse feature by selecting the Year, their State and then scrolling down to choosing their County. From that page I was then able to select their Township where I had found them in other years and just started paging through the district. As it turned out the bottom of that page was mostly indiscernable and had just been LEFT OUT of the transcriptions! Other people on that page hadn’t been included either. I was able to make out enough from the family group names and ages to know it really was them!

  7. I like to print out some of the helpful research articles to use with my classes. I would like to print two in today’s newsletter (May 14): The article by Juliana Smith has a link for printing that doesn’t work, and the A-Z article link takes you back to the May 7 newsletter. Hope they can be fixed.

  8. I tried to locate my great-grandmother and her first husband in the census, and I eventually found them indexed under a different name. The last name was Harmon, but the census taker made his cursive “r” as if he was printing. Thus, the last name came out as Hannen.

  9. I really enjoyed the article. My question is, Is there any way of correcting a transcription? The transcription of my birth in the 1930 census gives the wrong age. I was born in February of that year and as the image shows, was 3/12 of a year old, not 30 years as shown in the transcription!

  10. I had been searching the 1910 census for a grandmother for at least five years. She had come from Poland to New Jersey in 1907 but was married in Philadelphia in 1911. She could have been in either place in 1910 but no amount of creative searching found her — “M for W” “V for W in Polish” “a for o”, etc.(I know wildcard searches at Ancestry, an asterisk (*) represents 0-6 characters and a question mark (?) represents one character. but neither can be used in the first three letters of the name). I did page by page searches of the area of the address where she was married to no avail. I just could not hand search all of New Jersey or Philadelphia so I thought I was out of luck.
    Then last winter I was helping a new acquaintance look for her grandparents in Philadelphia. They popped up quickly in 1920 and 1930 but absolutely no luck in 1910. Since the parents’ given names had so many variations I started with the names and ages of the children (children seem to have more accurate ages than some of older people). Suddenly out of 400 names, a possiblity for a three year old Sophia appeared … a quick load of the image showed that it WAS the family but the census taker had spelled EVERY Polish name in the district phonetically. Not just the beginning of the name but the entire name. Phew, I thought what a relief.
    Then I glanced through the rest of the household and lo and behold, there was a female BOARDER who had emigrated from Poland/Austria the right year, was the right age and simply HAD to be my grandmother. Still not 100% positive, I studied it again and realized that the family was living in the exact same address where my mother was born two years later. Apparently my grandmother had moved during the year of her marriage, and before my mother was born had moved back to the same house with her husband. I keep telling everyone how helping someone (who can’t believe the coincidence of our grandparents living in the same house 100 years ago) turned out to be a blessing for me.

  11. Perhaps I missed something, however, is there a way; or, can
    you provide a way for us to “bookmark” the page numbers we have already been through when doing a census look-up. I use
    50 pages at a time, have gone through upwards of a thousand pages, get tired and stop. Then, I have to start all over rather than from where I stopped. Thanks, Jim

  12. I had a terrible time trying to find my great grandmother. I knew that my grandmother was already married and living somewhere else, but I was sure that some of her brothers and sisters should still be living at home. Couldn’t find anything under anyone’s name. I gave up and start to work on my great, great grandmother. Lo and behold, I found my g.grandmother.My g.g.grandmother was living with her. My great grandmother had remarried and the enumerator had used her husband’s middle name as the last name and of the 6 or 7 children living with them, only 1 was his. The others were all hers by her first husband (my great grandfather). I know there weren’t adopted by the 2nd husband since they went on thru life with their original last name. But the enumerator listed the 2nd husband’s middle name as the last name for all the children. I, too, have used the correction feature in Ancestry to correct things for future researchers.

  13. After reading many of your articles, I did a Power Point presentation on census. Then I did an Excel Worksheet and compared it to the Powerpoint and FTM. I colored in the missing census. I didn’t find many that I was missing. I did find one by searching the wife.
    One thing that I don’t understand about Ancestry. I have the page, film # and everything from another website; but can’t find it on Ancestry. No one has been able to answer this.
    I typed the whole Rusk Co. census for 1860 trying to find my great grandfather’s family(we had the marriage license in 1855). I never found them. Also her sister who married about the same time was missing.


    I tried your suggestion for that one pesky relative and lo and behold, a search by first name only with parents names produced the result from the 1930 census

  15. I have located my family in the 1900, 1910 and 1930 census. I have been unable to locate them for the 1920. I know they lived in the same area as they did in the 1910 census, I have a copy of a birth redord for two of my great aunts, both were born in the same town as the family lived in 1910. One of the great aunts was born in 1918 and the other was born in 1921. I have searched the entire cenus for the town and the county they were born in, but still no family. I could locate all other relatives in the same area, but not my grandfather or his parents. I have tried all different ways, as the last name is very strange I dont always go by the spelling, which is why I searched the entire area. Any suggestions as to why not able to locate. Thank you.

  16. Thanks to Ancestry, I recently connected with some third cousins living in Kansas. I tried locating their Falkner ancestors in the earlier censuses, but they could not be found in 1880. When we visited, they told me how their fathers were two years and eight years old when the family took their horse-drawn wagon from Iowa to Kansas in the springtime, the older boy especially remembering the trip since he had to walk the whole way, driving a cow, heifer and calf! I determined from their ages this was the spring of 1880, right when the census was underway! At least they show up in the 1885 Kansas census!

    But as far as other families in my tree, I have determined the census takers skipped their house, after comparing all the street house numbers, and this is very frustrating. Other times, especially before the 1880 numbering system, I just wonder why a family is not enumerated in the Federal or state censuses time after time. Did the Irish-born father distrust the government?

    I guess if it were easy, it wouldn’t be as much fun!

  17. I would very much like to take advantage of using the soundex system. However, I have never seen a so-called spelling box from which there is a drop-down menu. I have been an subscriber for three years and feel that I am not getting the advantages that are offered.

    Thanks for any help

  18. I don’t always get to read the updates but when I saw this one I knew I had to. I needed the reminder. I am stuck on couple of families and I know better. It took me about 2 years to find my great grandparents in the 1910 but I did find them by being persistent and using different search variations. Also persistence pays off. Same with my great great grandmother in the 1900 census I found by using her first name and found her widowed using her maiden name but was able to make a different determination by the children. Thanks for the reminder I am off to do some searching. Christine

  19. RE: Comment by Jim Murphy — 14 May 2007 @ 9:50 am
    If you copy the address bar of the last page you search, paste it in Notepad or some such tool. The next time you are ready to search, copy that, paste it in the address bar and you will be at the page where you stopped. Then simply click on the “Next”

  20. RE: Comment by suzanne darling — 15 May 2007 @ 2:35 pm
    “I would very much like to take advantage of using the soundex system.”
    There IS a soundex system. On most search pages,right on the same line as First, Middle and Last name, click where it says spelling “Exact”; SOUNDEX will be under that.

  21. Thank you for your census tips as well as all others. In trying to find my granfather in the 1900 Edgecombe co. census district 11 image #20 I found the spelling wrong and I could hardly read it. The correction is James Canady ( Kennedy) James; Martha; Walter; Lula; Andrew; Linda it looked like but should be Lena; Looked like Lessie and should be Lizzie ( Mary Elizabeth)

  22. Let me add my thank you to the many others above. My FEARN family had been “lost” in the 1920 census for a long while. I had tried everything, I thought. But one try with first name only and related details and there they were, the FEARY family! Can’t blame the transriber, that was a very droopy looking N.

  23. I guess I’ve belonged to ancestry for so long that many of the above suggestions are what I have been doing, intuitively, in searching the census.

    I did find something that will probably drive future searchers batty when the 1940 census comes online and someday someone tries to find my dad in the census. Wish I could tell them all that that won’t be possible. Why? Because just the other day, while organizing some of his papers, I came upon his 1940 census form. All filled out… but never handed in…

    Now, if I could just find that one ‘black sheep’ gr. gr. grandmother who one day just disappeared into the mists. Left her family, her husband, took up with another guy and headed off for parts unknown. She is what keeps me searching and although I have never been able to find anything out about her, I’ve used my research methods that I’ve developed looking for her – to help a number of my friends find their own ancestors.

    Maybe that would be a good tip: If you get stuck on a brick wall relative, help out a friend with their family search. It helps to hone your skills and then… maybe when you least expect it… there that brick wall relative will be. I’ve found that helping others helps to maintain my optimisim that I will find her one day. It helps to keep me from giving up.

  24. Thank you so much for this article! I’ve been searching for my mother-in-law’s family in the 1920 census for several years — I’d tried every wildcard and variation I could think of, but the “no last name” trick worked like a charm. Once I found the record, it made sense — the enumerator had a thick pen and crabbed handwriting, turning “Wanagel” into “Mazel,” as far as the transcriber could tell.

  25. I have used most of these tips in the last few weeks and have found ancestors back to the 1830 census. Some with very strangely transcribed names. Thanks for the reminder and suggestions.

  26. I have done a lot of proofreading for our local library computer database. In searching on-line I have often found the RN being translated as M. While proofreading I finally found that if I resorted to hunting up names that I KNEW were spelled with an rn and going to them in the original I would get some idea of what the transcriber’s style of writing was. In some of the censuses I often had to re-check L and T as the beginning letter. Amazing how often these looked the same to current eyes. And there were others who didn’t cross their small t or would cross both the l and t when they came together in a word. Butler was consistently translated as Butter in one County. I came to the conclusion you had to have a VERY kinky mind to come up with everything.

  27. my great grandfather Francis John Wyruck/Weyrauch was very mobile, and because of this he can be elusive. I have a fair timeline for him, but some of it is full of blanks. he was born in either Alsace, France/Germany, or in Schweigen/Scheichen, Bavaria. however, he was only 5 when he came to America and for every record I find for him he gives his birthplace as Pennsylvania. even so, I always check all three. plus France. Francis was born in 1826. in 1831 he came to America with his parents and older siblings. in 1848 his father died in Centre Co., PA. it is said that Francis fought in the Mexican/American war. I’ve yet to find a way to research this. in 1850 he eludes every variety of search suggested and some others of my own, done over many years with Ancestry. in 1856 he is in Vernon Co., Missouri, where he marries Nancy Jane Moore. by 1860 he is in Montivello, Vernon, Missouri with his wife and their first child, Mary Leticia. where is he between 1848 and 1856? that we cannot seem to discover. by March of 1865 he has moved his family to somewhere in Kansas (I cannot find him in the 1865 state census there, perhaps he moved to California shortly after his 3rd child Francis Ellsworth’s birth) and by 1867 he has moved his family to Modesto, Stanislaus, California. in 1870, I find two of his children in the house next door to his in-laws in Empire, Stanislaus, California, (vastly mispelled, of course) but he, Nancy and their other children are completely missing from that census.
    the surname Weyrauch can be mispelled more than 47 ways just through phonetic spelling-and it’s been vastly scrambled on some census with nothing but the first letter having anything to do with the name. so I have many chances of missing him.

    one thing I’ve noticed is that soundexing the whole name and using the wild card with three proceeding letters brings up two completely different results.
    I wish that we could wildcard the first letter. I’ve seen capital W mis-identified in census records as H, N, M, B, E, Y, K, R, and V. some are more common than others, and it all depends on the script used.

  28. If anyone is searching for Lawrence County, Indiana, ancestors in 1840, the images appear to be missing from However, the entire county is incorrectly listed under Lagrange County, Indiana. Please make this correction!

  29. I also suggest using BuildTrees.Com. There, you can build your own family tree and have your family members participate. You can build your family tree in no time and very accurately.

  30. If you are looking for a ‘George’ be sure to check under ‘Geroge’, which as most of us know, is the way our fingers sometimes hit the keyboard. If you do an search for ‘Geroge’ you will find tens of thousands of entries, not just in the censuses. I wish there were some way could correct this, especially with their census index. I emailed the tech support, and they said I was welcome to correct them one by one the usual way… sigh…

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