How to Successfully Find Family in US Census Records for Free
One of the best ways to find your family history in the US is to start with census records. Census records are most genealogists' first stop when building family trees because they are the gateway to further records.
What do you need to know about US census records?
Since 1790, US census records place a head of household in a specific place at a particular time. Since 1850, genealogists can build family trees thanks to biographical details such as names, relationships*, birthplaces, marital status, occupations, and more.
From 1850-1870, the relationships are inferred from the order names appear in the household entry according to enumerator guidelines. Then, beginning in 1880, the record specifies the relationships of each individual to the head of household.
While the oldest US census record preserve is from 1790, not every enumerated location has surviving records. Check out the FamilySearch Wiki for each census year to know which places have existing records.
Begin with the United States Census, 1790 page, then use the links beside the row header "Federal Population" at the bottom of the page to access reference pages for each decade.
This year, the wait for the 1950 US Census record will end. Public access to the census begins in April. If you want to learn how to research manually this spring, then check out the blog series by my friend Marion Burk Wood. Or, wait for searchable indexes to be available on FamilySearch and other genealogy websites.
We will then have to wait until 2032 for the 1960 census to be released. Why? Because the US Federal government has a 72-Year Rule that governs the release of census records.
For even more details about the census records, check out this blog post, Everything You Need to Know About US Census Records on Findmypast.
But there is one thing you need to know. While fire and subsequent water damage destroyed much of the 1890 census, over 6,000 names appear in the surviving fragments of the 1890 US Census! I bet you didn't know that, as most resources say, it's completely gone. But not so!
Watch this video.
How do I find my ancestors in the census?
While Findmypast, Ancestry, and MyHeritage have all the US census records available on their website, only a handful of the collections are freely available. However, the best place to research US census records for free is FamilySearch.
Before you begin, select a specific ancestor to research. Hopefully, you know some piece of identifying information such as:
date and place of birth
a relative's name (father, mother, sibling, spouse, child)
possibly an occupation
For me, I will search for Robert Geisler, born about 1923 in near Montgomery County, Ohio. His father's name was Andrew Geiser and his mother's name was Anna.
After logging into FamilySearch.org,
Click on "Search" from the top menu
Click the "Records" option
Scroll down the Search Historical Records page and use the Find a Collection search box.
Key in the search box the phrase "United States Census."
Then, select the year you wish to search.
I recommend searching the census record closest to the death year for the ancestor you're researching.
FamilySearch has a quick page of information as well as the option to "Browse" or "Search Only This Collection".
Add a name and a place. You can add a date if you wish, but I recommend starting a broad online search first. Then use the filters on the following page to narrow down your results.
Review the search results
Based on what you knew initially before beginning the search, look for the snapshot that seems like it will most likely fit.
Notice the three icons on the side: a pedigree, camera, and notes.
The pedigree icon means a researcher previously identified the individual in the record and attached it to a person in the FamilySearch family tree.
The camera means you can see a digitized image of the census record.
Finally, the note icon means you can review is only an index to the digital picture. These are fields of information pulled from the document to make it easier to decide if we want to look at the original source or move to the following search result.
Robert's entry lacks the pedigree icon, so we'll have to see if it's our ancestor.
Click on the notes icon, and you'll see this snapshot of information.
If this matches what you know about the family, you can save the record to the family tree or source box.
If you're unsure, review other records until you find something that fits your criteria.
Save Your Discoveries
If the census record does apply to at least one of your ancestors, click the button that says "Attach to Family Tree."
If you have recently created a profile, FamilySearch will prompt you with a list of potential matches.
Otherwise, you'll need to:
Open a new window search for the person on the FamilySearch family tree
Find their Personal Identification Number, which is unique to every profile on FamilySearch.
Copy and paste the ID to the box beside the Search button
Then FamilySearch will let you proceed to attach the record.
In the video, I switched the profile to Robert's father and began attaching the record to his profile so I could later create new profiles for Robert and his siblings based on the Census record.
Pro Tip: It's okay to add a new person to the FamilySearch based on records found one at a time.
Adding New Information to a FamilySearch Profile
Be sure to add the new information when applicable. FamilySearch makes it easy, in many instances, because all you have to do is click on the "+" sign beside the new details for the information on the census record to be placed on the profile for your ancestor.
The changes do not go into effect until you click "Attach."
Pro tip: You might see a census residence place for 1940 and 1935. However, the field in 1935 says, "Same House." Since this means the same location as the residence in 1940, attach the new information but EDIT the place field to be the same as the residence location from the later five years.
Before you save the census record, complete the box that explains why you are attaching the document. Avoid the temptation to say, "Same family," "my family," or "because." Instead, write something like the following:
The 1940 US household for Andrew and Anna Geiser, parents of Robert Geiser, born 1923 in Ohio. This relationship and Robert's birth date and place are based on previously discovered information found in [insert where you found the previous research.]
Click "Attach" when you've made all the changes allowed.
Save the Census Record to Multiple Persons
Census records are not solely about one individual. Often they document a family. Be sure to take the time to attach this record to all of the family members listed.
Note: If the family member is possibly alive and not your parent or sibling, do not save the record to them. Wait until they are deceased.
Family Search makes attaching one record to multiple persons in the family tree easy. You don't even have to leave the source linker screen. Often, the program will pair up the record to the family tree automatically. If not, drag and drop the person on the left side of the screen to align with the person on the right.
If you need to add a new person, FamilySearch often automatically suggests where to add that person, or you can drag and drop a relative into the correct spot.
It's best to show you how, so be sure to watch the video linked above.
What I REALLY like is that FamilySearch will autofill your reason to attach the record to each person's relevant box. If you can modify the statements if needed. However, if you write the statement in such a way that it applies to the whole family, you won't have to make many adjustments.
Once all the profiles are created, and the source attached, proceed methodologically to research the next census record.
Before you continue to the next census record, follow this advice from my colleague Lisa Lisson,
"Read every single column! Make sure you understand the response in each column. Many researchers miss valuable clues in the census records. Also, keep a blank census form at your side when researching the U. S. census records. The records can be difficult to read at times, and having a clear copy of each record will save you time." Learn more at What Everyone Ought To Know About Census Research
Search Census Records from a Profile Page
While you can search from the Search Page, you can also search census records from a person's profile page. FamilySearch will take relevant biographical details and autofill the search fields for you. Plus, it will remind you at the top of the search page.
From an Ancestor's Profile Page,
Click on the FamilySearch link in the right-side menu bar on the desktop.
For instance, you can:
Filter by collection.
Filter to a specific census record.
When tracing your family, be sure to start from the most recently available census. For the US, it's currently 1940, but after April 2022, it will be the 1950 census. (Yay!!!)
Work backward through each preceding census record, but you'll likely have to skip the 1890s if your ancestor is not among more than 6,000 names that survived water and fire damage.
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