4 Census Hurdles and How to Jump Over Them

Family History
6 February 2023
by Cari A. Taplin, CG®

Census records are foundational sources that family historians use regularly. 

The census is taken every 10 years in the United States (e.g., 1860, 1870, 1880) and released to the public after 72 years. Most recently, in April 2022, the 1950 census was released. 

A census collects information about individuals in their living situations at that point in time. Most commonly, you can find ancestors living with their parents and siblings, their spouses and children, or any combination thereof. The census provides a basic framework for building family trees. This framework then leads us to other records, such as birth, marriage, and death, to add more details to their lives.

But what happens when you cannot find an ancestor in the census? Let’s look at four common census hurdles and some tips for jumping over them.

1 Learn how to get past spelling and handwriting errors

In the early days of the United States, the literacy skills the ability to speak, read, and write English varied widely. If you can imagine an immigrant ancestor who just moved to a town and was settling in from Germany or Italy, how might they have spelled some words? How may they have spelled their names? Did they speak fluent English, or did they have a heavy accent if they did speak English? How might they have communicated with a census enumerator if they didn’t speak English?

Handwriting styles and conventions have changed over time, so what may have been perfectly legible at the time has been now difficult for us to decipher. Fortunately, Ancestry® handwriting recognition technologies have evolved to help us make more sense of records. 

To overcome this hurdle, you must think about names in terms of phonetics. How did that name sound? How could it have been spelled? For example, one of my ancestor’s surnames is “Limmer.” The following three censuses have spelled it “Lamm,” “Leeman,” and “Leemmer.”

While you may know the standardized spelling of your ancestors’ names, the enumerators and the indexers did not. Think about how a name sounded rather than how the family spells it today. Can you imagine that name spoken with an accent? One way to overcome this challenge is to create a list of all the spellings you can think of for a surname. Vowels are often interchangeable. If you have a young child in your family, you might ask them to help you. Say a name and ask them to spell it. They often come up with ideas you hadn’t thought of. Then use that list for conducting your searches.

You should also familiarize yourself with old handwriting and get “good” at reading the style. You can compare the words and letters from the same enumerator on the same page or look back and forth at other pages to compare their letter formations. This will help you figure out what certain names and words are. By seeing a familiar word with the same letters, you may be able to figure out the names you can’t make out. Also, you may recognize a name because it is familiar, but the indexers may have seen different letters.

Census page
Sample page of a census with difficult-to-read handwriting
2 Use search functions to get past transcriptions errors

Whether humans or machines created the index, indexes always have errors. An index is created by going through a book or set of documents and recording the names and subjects that appear. You most commonly find an index in the back of a book. In genealogy, indexes were created to help researchers locate their ancestors.

For census records, these were traditionally created manually, going page-by-page. Most recently, the census index was created by a computer that was programmed to read human handwriting, and create an index. 

Humans make mistakes, and computers can’t comprehend as much as a human brain can. If you have conducted a lot of research in a particular area, you will be more likely to recognize surnames from that area than the person or computer that was set to make the index. Even then, there will always be spelling and transcription errors.

One way to jump over this hurdle is to utilize the database’s special search functions. Many databases, including Ancestry, allow for “wildcard” searches. Wildcards are symbols that can be used in place of a certain number of letters, and the search engine will search for any words that meet those requirements. For example, if you are looking for “Miller” but are not sure if they may have spelled it “Miller” or “Mueller,” you can use an asterisk (*) to substitute and search for “M*ller.” Your search results should come back with “Miller” and “Mueller.” 

Ancestry also has “slider bars” to the left of your search results that let you filter your results from “exact” to “broad” for many of the data points you are searching. Suppose you cannot figure out how an indexer might have spelled a particularly difficult surname. In that case, you might try searching by their first name only, birthplace, and approximate birth year, especially if any of those are unique. Then scroll through that list of results looking for a name that might be familiar. What you are searching for might jump out at you.

3 Compare census records over time for accuracy errors

There are going to be errors in census records. Some errors might work in our favor. If an enumerator listed the county or town of birth in addition to the state (not what they were supposed to do according to the enumerator’s instructions), that can be helpful in your research, even though it was an error.

Some people were enumerated twice, and some not at all. One of my ancestors was enumerated twice in 1850. On September 5, William R. H. Avery was enumerated in the home of his older brother Gilbert Z. Avery in Wood County, Ohio. On September 14, William R. H. was listed in the household of his father, William R. Avery, in Medina County, Ohio. These censuses were taken in two different counties, about 10 days apart, and provide two snapshots of William R. H. Avery’s life. The details were nearly identical, except in his brother’s household, he was three years younger than recorded in his father’s. This error is easily explainable if the person informing the census taker in Wood County was his sister-in-law, and she wasn’t exactly sure how old he was.

Census Records
William’s son William R. H. Avery can be found in the 1850 census twice.

In another case, I have one family that was moving from Missouri back to Ohio during the 1900 census. I know they were moving because I found news articles indicating they had sent some of their children ahead to live with relatives so they could start school while the parents were moving. And I cannot find the parents anywhere in the census. The children sent ahead were located with those family members, but there is no sign of the parents and the younger children.

It’s possible that you won’t be able to find your ancestors in the census because their names were either taken down incorrectly, or they were mis-indexed or misclassified, or even omitted from the record due to racial biases and discrimination.

4 Compare census date to other records for intentional mistakes

Sometimes racial designations may not add up. While more recent census records call for individuals to self-identify their race, enumerators were tasked with documenting what they perceived someone's race to be or what the "community" generally accepted someone as in historical census records.

Perhaps your great-great-grandmother was like mine, and she aged more slowly than everyone else. In the 1850 census, she was 26; in the 1860 census, she was 35; and in the 1870 census, she was 44.

Ages Census Records
Eliza only ages 9 years for every 10!

Intentional errors are possibly the most difficult to navigate since the information you are seeking could have been misleading on purpose. To overcome this hurdle, corroborate the information you found with other sources. Examine more records, such as newspaper articles, wills, probate, and vital records. If someone moved away and changed their name for some reason, DNA might be the best way to identify that kind of intentional error.

With all these census challenges, be organized in your approach. Keep a research log detailing which spellings, search parameters, and wildcards you’ve used. Be methodical in your searches and keep track of the results. By changing how you think about surname spellings, how the enumerator may have captured them, how an indexer may have spelled them, and whether your ancestor made any accidental or intentional errors, you may have better success with your census searches. 

If you’d like professional help from AncestryProGenealogists® to help you navigate through census hurdles and support you creating a designed family history narrative, visit us www.progenealogists.com