Every ten years, the national government sent out census takers to ask a set of questions of each family in the country - including your ancestors. Folks were asked their names, ages, ethnicity, marital status, place of birth, occupations, and more. What you'll learn is limited to what questions were asked in a particular year and how accurately your ancestor answered, as well as how accurately the census taker recorded the information. But to learn from this information, you first have to find it.
The first census record I ever looked for was that of Vernon and Auline Albea, my Great-Grandparents, in the 1930 census. I was quite frustrated when I didn't find them right away. However, I did find them eventually, and it was a good learning experience. The problem was that many of the individuals in this family were recorded or transcribed incorrectly. The census taker had recorded Vernon as Verna. The transcriber who created the index turned (the slightly incorrectly recorded) Aulin into Antin. On top of that, I was unaware that my Great-Aunt Tootsie was actually named Frances Ninola and was thus confused when she was recorded in the census as Ninola. The only person in the household recorded both accurately and as I knew them was my grandfather, Roy - and he was the last person I searched for.
I learned a lot from this experience. First: that the census is not accurate. The information on the page is actually more likely to be wrong that right. The census taker had to record the information that he heard. Did he have good penmanship? Just how thick was your ancestor's accent? Could they spell their unusual names or did the census taker guess? Did you ancestor know, in a time devoid of vital records, how old he really was? Was the family away from home and a census taker took a neighbor's best guess?
Second, I learned that you have to be flexible when searching. I knew that my ancestors lived in Greenwood County, SC. I also knew that Albea was an uncommon name. If I had only searched in that location for that surname, I would have turned up only 14 results, including this family, their parents and cousins. I also learned to search for partial words. If I'd have searched for Vern*, I would have turned up the listing for Verna. Placing an asterisk after at least three letters of a name is a Wildcard search. The asterisk takes the place of the rest of the name and allows for variation. If I had used these and other methods to find variations, I would have had my results faster.
Third, I learned that the census really was a valuable resource. I learned a lot from this record about my family: their ages, their occupations, the fact that they rented their home and did not own a radio. From here, I was able to move forward in my research. I continued to search out census records to expand my family tree. I also added other resources, such as independent state census records, death certificates and military records.
So, how do you get started searching census records? There are tons of resources, and you best bet will be to use a few different ones. You never know when one transcriber might have recorded something wrong for one company, while someone transcribing for another got it right. Here's a list of a few places to find census records:
- $, images of all years, all years indexed
- free, images of 1850-1930 years, almost all indexed
- Archives.com [New]
- $, images of many years, all years indexed
- Internet Archive
- free, images of all years, no index