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Monday, March 4, 2019

Step-by-Step Guide to Using Online Census Indexes: Part Six

By United States Census Bureau -, Public Domain,
Census records are not limited to those created by the United States government. Of course, many other countries in the world have conducted censuses of their populations. Within the United States, there are many state censuses. There are also a number of local censuses and specialty censuses for particular organizations, occupations, and ethnic groups. An exhaustive listing of all the possible census records available in just the United States is outside the scope of this article. Here is a list of some of the websites that contain lists of censuses or links to censuses in the United States.
There are likely many more websites with links to census records if you search for "lists of census records" on the Internet.

Some limitations of Census Records

Searching census records may be the first real research activity for a beginning genealogical researcher. But it is important to note that census records have several serious limitations. These limitations include spelling of names, designation of place of origin, and other considerations.

Probably the first consideration of a limitation of census records is the fact that most of the records in existence relied on census takers or enumerators who copied down the information provided from the informants. The written entries on the census records are, therefore, in many many cases, merely transcriptions of what the census enumerator heard or understood. Inexperienced researchers often fail to find their ancestors' census entries because they fail to understand that the entries may differ from the way that the names were properly spelled. For this reason, even with a good index and even with a superior website search engine, entries on the censuses may be different from what the researcher is expecting. The only way to remedy the situation is to identify the location where your ancestors may have lived and searched the census records line by line. Unfortunately, if your ancestors lived in a large city, even this method may be ineffective in finding a misspelled or inaccurately represented name.

Some of the census records record the country or state of origin. However, it is not unusual to see a different location recorded in successive censuses. Many of the references to the place of origin are inaccurate because the enumerator assumed a nationality rather than an actual place of origin. For example, the enumerator may have asked, "where did you come from?" and received an answer that was different from the place where the informant was born. One of the most common errors is recording the place of origin or birth as "Germany" long before Germany existed as an entity.

The age of the informants is another opportunity for error. Many people for many reasons lied about their age. Traditionally, references to the year of birth are often off by a year because of the timing of the date the census was taken.

Other information in the census records may also be inaccurate or a multitude of reasons. Anytime information is transmitted and copied there is a possibility of inaccuracy. Census records should always be supported by additional historical records if at all possible. It is extremely likely that anyone appearing in the record will have other records available to researchers.

Census records are clearly one of the most valuable sources for information about people who lived in the United States but researchers should always remember that finding family or individual in the United States census is only a beginning.

Here are links to the previous posts in this series:

Part Four:
Part Five:


  1. How about a similar series on state census records?