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  • Writer's pictureDevon Noel Lee

What To Do When Your Family Isn’t in the Census

While census records are the gateway to genealogy research, it can be maddening when our ancestors aren't recorded in this federal document.

What can we do when it seems our ancestors weren't recorded in the census.

Why isn't my ancestor in the census?

According to Findmypast, "experts estimate that upwards of 90% of the population was successfully captured in each census."

Therefore, your ancestor might not be found in the census record.

Or, you might not be searching correctly. I've previously written about 14 Online Genealogy Search Strategies You Need to Know that could help you find your ancestors.

Here are some tips from genealogy experts on finding the unfindable ancestors in census records:

"Use various spellings of the surname and don't be afraid to search the census records page by page looking at every name listing. " - Melissa Barker, The Archive Lady.

" If you can't locate an ancestor, try different search parameters, use wildcards, etc. And if you know for sure the area where the ancestor SHOULD BE, determine the enumeration district and BROWSE the images!" - Thomas MacEntee, Genealogy Bargains.

Also, make sure to look at names a page before and after to see if any family members are living nearby. Many times you can find future spouses just a few doors down." - Miles Meyer Or, you might find someone else you were missing from your previous searches.

"Read and study the enumerator's rules and laws pertaining for why the census was taken." - Amie Bowser Tennant, The Genealogy Reporter. The reason is, you might discover a reason why your ancestor was not enumerated.

For instance, I have a distant relative living in Brazil during the 1930 and 1940 census records. Her family was not part of the military or a government representative. Her husband worked for a private export trading business.

Therefore, US Citizens living abroad outside of a government or military capacity were not included in the census records. I discovered that by following Amie's recommendation.

Need help researching your ancestors in Early US Census Records?

"Often, when you begin to look at a set of census records for a specific ancestor, it may appear they moved around quite a bit.

However, keep in mind that, especially if they were recorded in different districts of the same county or a neighboring county. Often county and district borders and numbers changed as new maps were drawn or the population grew or shrunk.

So that ancestor very well may have stayed in the same house while borders changed around them. Or you may begin to see a pattern of migration as that individual or family did move around." - Cyndi Harlin, Cathy Hong, and Ericka Grizzard of

Ancestry has several search strategies to try, but my favorite is to search directories. Perhaps these alternatives to census records can give you the information you seek.

From Family Tree Magazine, Diane Haddad suggests finding the names of likely neighbors. Search for them and then search for your ancestors. Learn more about this strategy in the blog post, A Census Search Trick for Hard-to-Find Ancestors.

Need help finding and analyzing census records or any other record you need? Use this link to get a $50 discount off your initial deposit when setting up a project with Trace professional researchers!

My final tip is once you have found your ancestor for free on FamilySearch, search for your ancestor on census records on Findmypast, MyHeritage, or Ancestry. Not all indexes to the census records were created equal. Sometimes an ancestor is impossible to find on one site but super easy on the other sites. To see what I mean, check out my genealogy website search engine comparison video.

May you have luck working around the lack of census records documenting your ancestor.

More Genealogy Record Tips

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