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Using Census Records Online for Genealogy Research

by GenealogyBank

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Finding information about your ancestors can be difficult unless you know where to look.  The United States has been compiling census data for many years.  Collecting this data is a tedious process that is completed every ten years.  The records that contain the census data are released after the information reaches 72 years.  At this time the data is available for public use.  The 1940 census records have recently become available.  The 1940 census release offers a wonderful opportunity to do genealogy research on your family. 

What to Learn from the Census

Starting with the 1900 census records there is quite a bit of interesting data that can be found by utilizing these records.  Every household in the country was surveyed as part of each census.  The census data will show many things including such information as the address, the head of household, the members of the household and their ages, how long the person has been in the country, where the person was born, whether the person is married, single, or widowed, how long the person has been married, whether the family rent or owned their home, and the occupation of each household member.  This information will provide you with a window to the past.  You can learn quite a bit about your relatives by utilizing the federal census records.

  • Address of residence
  • Name
  • Head of household or relation to head of household
  • Married, single, widowed, divorced
  • Age at first marriage
  • Age at last birthday
  • Race
  • Attended school in last year
  • Place of birth
  • Place of birth of mother and father
  • Citizenship
  • Occupation / Industry
  • Employment
  • Veteran
  • Rent or own
  • How much the home cost or how much is paid in rent

How to Research Your Family’s History Using Census Records Online

The first step in researching federal census records is to determine your relatives’ names and where they most likely lived.  Gather as much information as you can as this will help you in your search.  Keep in mind that you’ll be using online database to search for your relatives so the more information you have about them the better.  The federal census records are available through the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).  You can get started using the data through NARA by visiting the website at

Gather Basic Information

Gather information about your family members.  You should include as much information as possible such as:

  • Year of birth
  • Year of death
  • Where the person lived (state, county, city)
  • Names of spouse and children

You can obtain this family information from various sources that are available to you including the family Bible, graduation records, military records, insurance data, obituaries, etc.  One good way to add to your initial information is to review archives of newspapers and obituaries.  These records will help you gather the data you need to move forward in the genealogy process. Create a simple family tree.  You can do this online using family tree software or use a sheet of paper to list family member’s names, birth dates, death dates, parents, and children.  You’ll also want to think about where the family members lived when the census was taken.  Remember that the census is completed every ten years. 

Accessing Federal Census Records

Start by accessing the U.S. Census Bureau website.  This website offers the data including the 1900 census records, 1910 census records, 1920 census records, 1930 census records, and 1940 census records as well as the 1940 census enumeration districts. The information for this census information is located on microfilm or Soundex records. The correct census records must be accessed in order to find the data you’re looking for.  Starting with good information will help you locate the records more easily.

1900 Census Records, 1910 Census Records, and 1920 Census Records – These records are all contained on microfilm or Soundex database.  You must locate the correct record so you can order the Soundex code.  Keep in mind that some Soundex cards may be out of order or may not contain the information.  You may need to review the entire enumeration district or city to find your ancestor.

1930 Census Records

The 1930 census records are contained in microfilm kept through the NARA.  Use the NARA website to determine which microfilm will need to be viewed, rented, or purchased.  There are two methods for searching the 1930 census records – Soundex search and geographic search. The Soundex search is only available for 12 southern states while the geographic search is available for all states and territories.  The site will guide you through the search process.  The search will provide you with the correct county and enumeration district along with the publication number where the district can be located in the census data online.  You can then order a copy of the microfilm roll so you can view the information. 

1940 Census Archives

To locate people through the 1940 census archives you’ll need to find the census map associated with their home.  The 1940 enumeration districts are listed on the site and are searchable by state and county.  After locating the correct enumeration district you can then browse the archive document images to find what you’re looking for. 

Tips for Using Federal Census Records for Genealogy Research

  • The names of your ancestors may be misspelled.  It is a very common occurrence because the census taker in many cases tried to spell the name phonetically the best they could.  You should determine some of the similar spellings so you can look these up as well. In many cases the search will result in some additional similar sounding names for you to review.
  • Census data is only available for public review after 72 years.  The 1950 census records will be available to the public in 2022.
  • The data that is recorded on federal census records is only as complete as the census taker taking the data.  In some cases the information may be incorrect, incomplete, or subjective. 
  • NARA offers links online that allow you to search census records from 1790 through 1940. Data is available through microfilm or Soundex records that can be ordered.
  • Once you locate your relative through a particular census you will be able to more easily track them through the previous or next census data.  This will help you build your family tree and locate additional relatives you may not have known about. 
  • There are various genealogy websites that offer access to census data through a paid subscription.  Some of these sites can be very helpful because they have sorted the data to make it available to you online.

The Best Genealogy Websites for Family History Research

Genealogy websites are available to assist in locating ancestral data.  The sites offer a great deal of help by streamlining the process of online genealogy searches.  This can be very helpful if you are having trouble locating your relatives or don’t have enough basic information to start your search.  They offer tips and assistance to help you create your family tree and learn more about your family history.

The following genealogy websites offer access to important information including U.S. census data and census news: - Offers a large database of information including census data, birth and death records, and marriage information and other data for many countries. - Provides searches of more than 1 billion genealogy records of all types online for the United States including newspaper accounts of the census process and census substitute name lists. – Search a large data bank of information including census data as well as many other historical records. – Gives access to census data as well as books, articles, and other records dating back to the Revolutionary War. – Offers a large database including access to public documents and federal census records. 

Using federal census records to research your genealogy is a process that will be both interesting and rewarding.  The Internet provides an easy way to approach genealogy, making it an ideal source for both hobbyists and genealogists.  Combining census records online with genealogy websites will help you find information to complete your family tree or to simply learn more about your ancestors.

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