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Finding Elusive Ancestors in Online Census Indexes

Many times, researchers are correct in conclusions that ancestors should be found in certain locations, even when they can't find them listed in indexes.


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Resource: GenWeekly
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"I know they have to be there!" is a commonly heard complaint amongst those who can't find their ancestors in US census record indexes. Census records should help genealogists expand their roots, not stunt their growth. Many times, researchers are correct in conclusions that ancestors should be found in certain locations, even when they can't find them listed in indexes. Actually finding these lost souls requires unorthodox approaches to searching the census.

Never totally rely on census indexes

Over the years, many census indexes have been created. Statewide name indexes by Ronald Vern Jackson, Family Tree Maker, et al, and more recently nationwide name indexes found at,, and, promise to quicken the process of finding ancestors throughout the United States. However, when attempting to accomplish such mammoth aims, most fall short of creating the most accurate searchable indexes. Without local knowledge of families who lived in certain time periods and places, indexers will never sufficiently master the palaeography to be mistake-free. Since companies have produced many of these indexes independently, try checking multiple versions to find missed individuals.

Countywide indexes

Many local and family historians have created countywide census indexes. These individuals publish their transcriptions after years of exposure to the families and surnames of their geographic area. They know which families should appear, and can often pinpoint mistakes made in the indexes listed above, as well as problems in what the census taker himself wrote. Sometimes these are annotated with marriage and cemetery records, of tremendous help to descendants. Many of these census indexes can be found in genealogical sections of libraries in the counties of interest. A large percentage can also be acquired through Family History Center loans from the Family History Library.

This having been said, let's turn our attention back to the online census records to learn a few tricks on how to manipulate them into more useful search engines to find our missing persons.

Widen the search parameters

Genealogists often create unneeded obstacles for themselves in searching online indexes. Some of these indexes, such as, will permit only exact name spelling searches. This means that if Joseph Taylor was enumerated as Joe Taylor or J. Taylor, the search engine will fail to find him. Also realize that the census indexer may have simply misextended the truncated name, such as Josiah Taylor.

It is usually easier to search for a person by their first and last names, omitting their middle name and/or middle initial.

Also be aware that ancestors moved around. Searching neighboring counties and states, or even conducting nationwide searches, may provide the key to finding frequent fliers.

Limit searches to counties

All three online census indexes discussed in this article come equipped with advanced search options. Learn how to use these! Ancestry recently launched the "Best Matches (Ranked)" search engine. This uses various new computerized techniques to locate evasive characters.

If you know that an ancestor must have resided in a specific county and state, restrict the search to that county. If the name does not appear as expected, search for just a given name, leaving the surname blank. Then look through all the men named John, or whatever the given name may be, until you find what look like misspellings of his surname that the search engine didn't pick up. Moreover, the same technique of a county search applies for a specific surname search such as for Taylor. Leaving the given name blank and only querying for Taylor may help you identify Joseph A. Taylor listed on the census only by his initials J.A. Taylor.

Don't trust the census taker Make sure not to discredit individuals who appear to be ancestors because ages and birthplaces slightly disagree with current knowledge of the family. We don't know who the census taker spoke with when he obtained his information. Perhaps only the twelve-year-old son or the servant was home at the time and became the informant.

It is not uncommon to find the same family listed multiple times in a single census. The list of reasons why this occurred is lengthy, but do not become too perplexed by this reality.

City directories: census index substitutes

In cities, hubs for immigrant families, name spellings have often been slaughtered both by census takers and indexers. Immigrants who did not speak good English exacerbated the problem. Realize that by the mid-19th century, many cities had begun generating city directories listing the address of inhabitants. Telephone books are the modern equivalents of these records. After finding the ancestor in city directories, use this address to return to the census and search until that address is found. Guides such as enumeration district maps can speed up this process. This is a backdoor approach to finding families whose names have been misspelled.

Some ancestors do not appear in censuses

The stereotypical hick in the South may not have wanted strangers to trespass on his property. The author has heard stories of residents scaring off census takers by holding them at gunpoint until they ran away.

In city slums, census takers may not have dared to enter dark alleys. Would it be wise to question a member of the mafia?


In one of the author's most perplexing census searches, he found that following the death of her husband, an early 20th-century Swedish immigrant widow reverted back to her maiden name. The moral of the story - persistence! Never give up until the ancestor is found.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2004.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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