Return to:  Original Format  |  Index of Guides

RootsWeb's Guide to Tracing Family Trees
Guide No. 9:  Census Records

American Census Records — Soundex, Indexes and Finding Aids

Scrawled upon some of America's historical documents are your ancestors' names, along with personal data about them. Perhaps you have never thought of the federal census records as historical documents, but they certainly are. They also are invaluable to genealogical research.

Use of the 1920, 1910, 1900, and 1880 censuses — usually the first used by beginning American genealogists — are aided by a unique microfilmed card index to some of them. It is known as the Soundex. In it surnames are coded from the way they sound rather than how they are spelled.

The Soundex code consists of a letter (always the first letter of the surname) and three numbers. Numbers are assigned according to the following Soundex coding guide:

In coding your surname:

Soundex Card Form

Confused? Use RootsWeb's easy Surname to Soundex Code Converter

Now you know how to Soundex your surname. You also should know that the 1920 census is Soundexed for every state. Start with it. Don't make the mistake of trying to skip census years — you might lose the trail of your ancestors if you do leap-frog research.

1910 Census. The 1910 census has a Soundex or Miracode index for 21 states — those states that had not complied with a federal law of 1906, mandating the keeping of accurate birth and death records.

The Miracode is a slightly modified version of the Soundex. It uses the same phonetic code and abbreviations as the Soundex but Miracode cards list the visitation numbers assigned by the enumerators, while Soundex cards show the page and line numbers on the appropriate census schedules.

Those 21 states are: Alabama, Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana (uses both Soundex and Miracode), Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia.

In 1910, if your family was living in a state other than the above 21, you probably will need to know the city or county in which they resided and do a line-by-line reading to find them. However, there is a city street-finding aid for many of the larger cities. This was created originally by the Bureau of the Census to facilitate its work in searching the original 1910 schedules in response to inquiries from individuals and government agencies. Known as the Cross-Index to Selected City Streets and Enumeration Districts, 1910 Census, it was produced by the National Archives in 1984 as publication M1283. It is an index to the city streets for 39 U. S. cities. You can use this street index to determine a census Enumeration District for a known address in one of these cities. The Family History Library and other libraries also have this index on microfiche.

The cities are:

Akron, Ohio; Atlanta, Georgia; Baltimore, Maryland; Canton, Ohio; Charlotte, North Carolina; Chicago, Illinois; Cleveland, Ohio; Denver, Colorado; Detroit, Michigan; District of Columbia; Elizabeth, New Jersey; Erie, Pennsylvania; Fort Wayne, Indian; Gary, Indiana; Grand Rapids, Michigan; Indianapolis, Indiana; Kansas City, Kansas; Long Beach, California; Los Angeles and Los Angeles County, California; Newark, New Jersey; New York City (excluding Queens), New York; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Omaha, Nebraska; Patterson, New Jersey; Peoria, Illinois; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Phoenix, Arizona; Reading, Pennsylvania; Richmond, Virginia; San Antonio, Texas; San Diego, California; San Francisco, California; Seattle, Washington; South Bend, Indiana; Tampa, Florida; Tulsa, Oklahoma; Wichita, Kansas; Youngstown, Ohio.

1900 Census. The 1900 census has a Soundex for all states. However, the 1880 census has a Soundex only for households that had children ages 10 and under. If your ancestors were a newly married couple in 1880 with no children, or were an older couple whose children were ages 11 and older, you probably will not find them in the 1880 Soundex and will need to search the actual county's enumeration.

The federal population censuses for 1880, 1900 and 1910 (most of the 1890 census was destroyed by a fire) as well as the available Soundexes for these years are on microfilm and accessible at regional branches of the National Archives, through many public libraries, LDS (Mormon) Family History Centers, Heritage Quest, and other repositories. The National Archives has published online catalogs of the microfilm film numbers of the population schedules.

What if you can't find them?

The Soundex is a boon to most researchers, but not all of our ancestors appear in them. Consider these possibilities:

If your ancestors resided in sparsely populated rural areas, it is usually productive to examine the individual census rolls and search line-by-line. However, if they resided in large urban areas, this can be almost an impossible task. For example, the 1910 census of New York City consists of 93 rolls of microfilm. Fortunately, there are some alternatives that may enable you to locate your ancestors in these censuses.

Starting with the 1880 census, schedules began listing the area that an enumerator covered in taking the census. These are called EDs — enumeration districts. To find your ancestors in a particular census first determine the ED in which they resided at that time. Ascertain the street address by searching for your urban dwellers in city directories. Many public and private libraries have these, and some city directories have been microfilmed by the Family History Library. Once you find the address you can use one of the census finding aids. Ask your librarian or the research staff at branches of the National Archives for assistance in locating these research aids. They include:

Be sure to record:

Recording this information will save you time and frustration later when you probably will need to look for it again. It's amazing how often you will refer back to the same census as you discover your ancestor married one of the neighbors, or you can't find your Sally Jones because she married John Smith and is living two farms from her parents, but you didn't know this at the time you did the original extraction.

Census data should be copied exactly as you find it, even though you know it to be incorrect. Copy everyone listed in the household where you find your ancestor (unless it is a rooming house or hotel), because there is an excellent possibility these people will turn out to be related — somehow. Minor children found in a household with a different surname almost invariably are related to the head of the household.

Don't be too concerned about age discrepancies. As you follow families through several censuses, the ages will be fairly accurate. People were rarely missed in the censuses. You may even find your family enumerated two or three times. If you are unable to find your family in a particular census it usually means you are looking in the wrong place, the name is spelled differently, or you simply overlooked them.

Record the names of the neighbors who appear on several pages before and after the page where you ancestor appears. For among these usually will be other family members, as our ancestors seldom moved to an area alone. Copy all the information in every column. Those bits and pieces of data can be invaluable to you later. And if you record all the information the first time, you will not have to waste time and effort going back to re-check.

Spelling and handwriting often make reading these old census records difficult. Be sure to consider all possible spelling variants of your names. Capital T's, L's and S's are often interchanged as are lower case n's and u's or a's, u's and o's. Even entire names can be misread. Consider all possible phonetic spellings of your surnames. The letters H and E are commonly dropped or added. Think about the regional accents and sound out how a surname may have been heard by an enumerator. If your surname begins with a vowel, be especially alert to another spelling. For example, Ingle may have been recorded as Engle or Angle.

Trace your families in all available censuses and abstract all the information from each one. Don't abstract only the information about your direct line. U.S. federal census schedules, available from 1790 to 1920, can help you link your families. They also provide clues as to when and where ancestors were born, along with various additional data. However, there are some false assumptions that researchers sometimes make in using these records.

Watch out for these pitfalls:

Assuming that any or all of the information in the census records is correct. The enumerator may have asked the neighbors. Your ancestor may not have spoken English well, or at all, or could have misunderstood various questions. And, the math skills of many of the census takers was poor, to say the least. Verify all census information with other sources.

Assuming the children belong to the couple they are enumerated with (unless relationships are specified). They may be nieces and nephews, grandchildren, or even unrelated. Enumerators often got carried away with the ditto marks.

Assuming the children are those of the wife listed. They may be, but often are not. Men have been known to marry women with same given name. Always search for marriage records. Re-marriage was frequent as many women died in childbirth, leaving the father with young children to care for. The solution was to find a wife — and quickly.

Assuming that all the people listed in the families on the 1790 to 1840 censuses are related. They could have been farmhands or miscellaneous relatives living with the family. Often several families resided together.

Assuming when a head-of-household is no longer enumerated with the family that he or she is dead. The "old folks" may have gone to live with a son or daughter. Always search for them in the homes of their children.

Don't assume a person was still living at the time of the census. The enumerator was instructed to take down the names of the family as it was composed on the official date of the census, not the day of the visit.

Enumerations were generally done by townships. Pay attention to the township in which you find your ancestors. When searching in unindexed records, or if you can't find your ancestors in an index, locate a map that shows the townships, then check the census for that township.

Use indexes and Soundexes with caution. There are errors and omissions in all of them. If you know (or strongly suspect) your family was living in a particular county, read the entire census for that locality.

Official census dates were:

U. S. Federal Census Images are available at (subscription). View the original documents online.

Suggested Reading & References

Additional Resources

Links in this Guide
(in order they appeared)