More Census Search Tips

Mr in the census.bmpIn the previous article, we talked about finding clergy in the census by using titles in place of a given name. This can also be a solution for lay people. Search for Mr. or Mrs. and you’ll turn up plenty of hits. (Click on the image to see an example from the 1930 census for Boston, Massachusetts.) And the town doctor could be listed with Dr. as his first name. Dr. and Mrs. Cooneery of Chicago, Illinois, are a good example of this situation. Here are some more tips for census searching.

Search for Initials
Sometimes the census taker decided that listing an initial was enough. In searching for my Kelly ancestors in New York City, I was repeatedly frustrated in my attempts to locate one family—until I left out the given name. When I saw the results I noticed an abundance of initials in place of given names. Once I entered the appropriate initial, I found the family I was searching for—with every family member listed with only an initial.

Leave Out the Name
While it might seem a long shot, sometimes the best way to search is without a name. If you know where your ancestor lived, try leaving out the name entirely and use other facts you have to narrow your search. For example, I know my grandparents were living in Parma, Ohio, in 1930 and had been recently married. By entering my grandmother’s birth year, birthplace of Ohio, residence of Parma, Ohio, and relationship to head of household (wife), she comes up as the thirteenth record on the list of results for that search.

Search for Siblings
Try searching for various siblings. While your direct ancestor’s entry may be hard to read or transcribed incorrectly, the sibling’s entry may be correct. I was helping my uncle find his parents in 1930. The last name was mangled, so I entered his brother’s given name, specified the county, and added in the given names of his father and mother. Even though all three had common given names (Charles, Henry, and Mary) those names, relationships, and the county were enough to allow me to find them.

Name Prefixes
When you’re working with names that have prefixes like Mc, O’, Van, or De, try searching for the name in various ways—all one word (McDonald), separated with a space (Mc Donald) or without the prefix (Donald).

Browse the Area
You can get a good feel for any idiosyncrasies in a particular census year for a particular location by browsing through some of the images. Just go to the census page and then scroll down to the listing by state and click through to the county and local levels. Look for the types of things mentioned above. This will help you tailor your search.

Start Wide and Narrow Your Search
Start your search with only a few facts and narrow it gradually. Don’t check the box to “Match All Terms Exactly.” Give yourself a little wiggle room. Once you’ve entered information, you can start narrowing your search by selecting the fields you want to match exactly by clicking the box for each field.

Keep Track
Keep a list of the various searches you’ve tried so you don’t end up repeating, and it can also help you to determine whether there are search options that remain to be explored.

While we’ve come a long way since the days of scrolling though unindexed microfilm to locate our ancestors, online census records and indexes can still present challenges. But through the creative use of the technology we now have at our fingertips, our chances are good for locating those elusive ancestors.

13 thoughts on “More Census Search Tips

  1. I didn’t think we could enter just one letter in the search box, such as an initial. Are you saying we can?

  2. It will match if that is the only letter or if an initial is included with the given name. To see what I mean, in the article, I talked about my search for James Kelly in 1860. I searched that census for J Kelly, born 1815 (I used +/- 5 years), and the residence of New York, USA. He is the fourth hit on the results page, listed with his wife Margaret (M.), son James (J.), and daughter Anna (A.). You’ll also see others on the page with J. as a middle initial. It doesn’t always turn out that way, but it’s something to keep in mind.

  3. Don’t forget nicknames that can cause you to miss someone in an index. I couldn’t find an entry for my grandfather, Charles Herrick. I found him as Charlie in one record, and Charley in another. William may be missing because he’s listed as Billy. Same thing with Robert/Bob, Richard/Dick, Edward/Ned/Ted, etc.

  4. Yes, using just an initial works! I’ve looked for my Lee W. Deuel family in the 1920 and 1930 census for over 2 months. Finally, last Friday I used Lee D at both and Heritage Quest. For the two companies and two censuses I found the family with the surname spelled as Donel, Danel, and Dence! When I look at the handwritten names on the sheets, the surname all appears to be Deuel to me.

  5. Can I search the Census records using an address? I have a listing of my ancestor in a city directory so I know where he lived but can’t find him in the census for the same year

  6. Ancestry does not always pick up a name when doing an master search. Numerous times I have searched for a family or a specific member of a family with no results until I went to a specific census year to do a search

  7. Census shows my ggrandfather was born in Ohio, but birth 1834 and have serched Ohio, but vitals then not available. Have tried many places, and all relatives are deceased, so unable to obtain further information. Just give up?

  8. Eileen–Don’t give up! There are still many other sources that can help you extend your family tree back further. For example, although there is not a birth record for your ggf in 1834, what about a death certificate or obituary that might give his parents names and specific birthplace? What about county histories that give biographical information residents? If you go to and click on Research Helps, then Guidance, you can select a location (such as Ohio) and will be able to review suggested sources for research in that area. Good luck and don’t give up!

  9. I’m a municipal historian in upstate NY so I have done alot of work with census records. I have found so many people, men especially, used their middle names and were recorded in the census records that way. Sometimes, their first names were recorded using just an initial followed by their full middle name.

    Enumerators often weren’t careful in recording the proper spelling. I found Martin Deland listed as Martin D. Land and Patrick McNamara as Patrick McMana.

    Another good tip, if you can’t find your ancestor in a particular town where you thought he lived, look in the surrounding towns. Boundary lines often changed in the early years.

  10. To Eleanor Ticknor coment 0n Feb.9,2009- a Martin Deland is an ancestor of mine. Was he from New York state and born around 1803? Ray

  11. Another search to try is using the “*” after the first three letters. Cha* can locate Charles, Charlie, Chas. Mar* can locate Mary, Maria, Marie, plus any other name beginning with “Mar”. It’s helps take care of several variation searches at one time.

  12. I was looking for as family who I know was in a particular place, but none of my various spellings and oter tricks worked, so I went through the whole township and found them. Maher was spelling neatly and clearly as Mehax! At least the first letter was the same.

  13. I was looking for a family with the surname Tapp in Missouri and could not find them anywhere. I had tried some typical variations of T’s such as Lapp and Fapp with no matches. Same way with Tepp, Tipp, Topp, Tupp. So being a stubborn person, I began through the alphabet: Aapp, Bapp, Capp, Dapp, etc. Luckily for me, there they were under Capp. It in no way looks like Tapp, so the census taker must have heard the name incorrectly.

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