Census Research Getting Started Research Tips

Search Tricks for Locating Your Ancestors in an Online Census

Online census records are marvelous resources for finding your ancestors. They make it possible to do intensive genealogical research at home, when in the past, a census search required a trip to the library, a look through a printed index of names, and a search of a roll of microfilm. Yet, there can be issues with finding your ancestors in online census records, just as there could be with the old-fashioned method. The census taker may have spelled the person’s name wrong. In the past, you would have to search through the whole town on microfilm to find your ancestor if he or she was not listed in the printed index due to a misspelling on the census taker’s part. In online census records, the person transcribing the records to make an online searchable index may have misspelled the name or had a problem reading the census taker’s handwriting.

If your ancestors are not easily found in the census, it doesn’t mean they aren’t there. The beauty of searchable online indexes is that you can search in a variety of ways to find your ancestors and increase your knowledge of your family history. These are some techniques you can use.

1. Try Searching by First Name Only

If your ancestor has a very unusual last name, it may be difficult to find them in an online census record. It makes it more likely the census taker or the transcriber for the online index made a mistake in the spelling. If you search just by first name, you may be more likely to find your ancestor, especially if it is a small town with only a few possible candidates for someone of your ancestor’s age and first name.

2. Search by Age Only

If your ancestor’s first name and/or last name are unusual, you can sometimes finding them in online census records by searching just by age, if you know approximately when they were born. If you only have a general idea of when they were born, try searching within a few years before and after the time you think they were probably born. Looking at people of the proper age and gender of your ancestor may show you their name in the census. Even if it is misspelled by the census taker, you will probably recognize it if you already know the name.

3. Search an Entire Town

If you can’t find your ancestor by first name or age, try searching the whole town by gender, if the town is of a small enough size to give you a good chance of finding them without having to look through hundreds of pages of census records. Just search by gender, and you may find your ancestor with a very surprising spelling of their first and/or last name.

These are just a few tricks to find your ancestors in online census records. They are powerful and they work. You can combine these search methods, use them on their own, or even add other search parameters, such as place of birth, if it’s known, or the name of a relative who would have lived with them, if the relative has an easily spelled and common name. Most of the time, you will be able to find your ancestors with one of these methods. Of course, sometimes your ancestors were genuinely missed by a census taker, or purposefully hid from them out of distrust of the government. These will be the exceptions rather than the rules. Use these alternative search techniques, and find the ancestors you thought would always be hidden from you.


Will Moneymaker founded Ancestral Findings back in 1995. He has been involved in genealogy research for over 20 years. The thrill of the hunt, the adventure, and the excitement begin when he started investigating the meaning of his surname. Why I Love Genealogy (And You Should, Too!)

2 Comments

  • You are so right! As Winston Churchill once said “never give up, never, never, never”. I could not find my ancestor James Hudson on the 1850 Philadelphia census, I knew he was there… I searched all the James and there were a lot in Philadelphia…. there he was listed as James PLUDSON, the translator had mistaken the fancy H for a PL. Never give up, it may take some time but it is worth it.

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