|See Thomas Jefferson in the 1790 Census.|
Census records are some of the most valuable and commonly used genealogical records around the world. When I first began searching for information about my ancestors years ago, I was introduced to the U.S. Federal Census Records while I was doing research at the Salt Lake City Family History Library. One of the Library staff showed me a large file cabinet full of microfilm rolls containing a copy of the U.S. Census records. I found the roll for the place some of my ancestors lived and figured out how to view the images in a microfilm reader. After looking at the images for a few minutes, I decided that this whole process was hopeless and it was many years before I used any of the census records again.
Today, all of the available U.S. Census Records are online on the internet on a number of different websites. Two important copies are completely free to search and view. An indexed copy is on FamilySearch.org and an un-indexed copy of the original microfilm is on Archive.org. Here is a list of a few of the websites that have copies of the U.S. Census records. Those websites marked with a dollar sign have a subscription but the word "Library" means that they are also available in some public libraries. In addition, those marked with FHL are available in a FamilySearch.org Family History Library around the world.
- Ancestry.com $ Library FHL
- MyHeritage.com $ Library FHL
- Findmypast.com $ Library FHL
- GenealogyBank.com $ Library
- AmericanAncestors.org $
- Archive.org Free
- FamilySearch.org Free
- CensusRecords.com $
Back to my first experience at the Salt Lake City Family History Library; had I known a little bit about the Census records and how they were compiled, I might have had some success finding some of my ancestors. The key to all census records is the location of your ancestors during the years the census was taken. If you know where they were, you can always search the census page by page for your ancestors' names. Obviously, this is only practical if your ancestors lived in a relatively small town or village, otherwise, you will have a monumental job of searching.
Indexes for the U.S. Census began back in 1918. Here is a quote about this particular index system called "Soundex" from Wikipedia: Soundex. When I learned about the Soundex, I was volunteering at the Mesa, Arizona Regional Family History Library (later the Mesa FamilySearch Library).
Soundex is a phonetic algorithm for indexing names by sound, as pronounced in English. The goal is for homophones to be encoded to the same representation so that they can be matched despite minor differences in spelling. The algorithm mainly encodes consonants; a vowel will not be encoded unless it is the first letter. Soundex is the most widely known of all phonetic algorithms (in part because it is a standard feature of popular database software such as DB2, PostgreSQL, MySQL, SQLite, Ingres, MS SQL Server and Oracle.) Improvements to Soundex are the basis for many modern phonetic algorithms.
Some online genealogy websites still incorporate Soundex searches such as Ancestry.com.
Although there are sophisticated search engines on some of the websites, searching for ancestors on a census record might still require a name-by-name, page-by-page search. I am glad we have the images from the census records available.