Saturday, April 22, 2006

Federal Census Records online

The Federal Census Records from 1790 to 1880 and 1900 to 1930 are available online (the 1890 census was nearly completely lost in a fire, so it is unavailable). However, you need to access one of three subscription services online to use the indexes and to see the page images. The three services are Ancestry, HeritageQuestOnline and

If you don't have a personal subscription to Ancestry, all is not lost, since access to Ancestry Library is free at many public libraries and at all LDS Family History Centers.

Access to HeritageQuestOnline is also free through many public libraries and genealogy society web sites (for instance, NEHGS, NYGBR, many state society sites, etc). You can find a complete list here. I have a Carlsbad (CA) library card and access it at home. has only home access through a personal subscription.

Ancestry has all of the available census images, with head of household indexes for 1790 to 1840 and 1910; they have an every name index for 1850 to 1880, 1900, 1920 and 1930. They permit wild card searches with at least 3 letters of the surname or given name, which can be very helpful. I recommend using the "Exact Search" tab, unless your search target is well hidden.

HeritageQuestOnline has all of the census images that Ancestry has, but has only head of household indexes for 1790 to 1820, 1860, 1870 and 1900 to 1920. You can also search HQO images by year, roll number and page number, or by state, county and town or city ward, for the years that are not indexed. HQO does not permit wild cards, so you have to try differnet surname spellings if your search target is well hidden. has the same images that HeritageQuestOnline has, and the same indexes (I think - I haven't tried it recently).

The 1880 census was also indexed by the LDS Family History Library here. You can search the index for free, and see the transcriptions for each household for free. I use this to determine the film roll number and page number for my search target, then I use HQO and input the roll number and page number to see the 1880 census image.

On a Windows computer, you can right-click on the census image and save it to your hard drive for future reference. You can also use your photo program to print a copy of the image.

Search strategies for finding your elusive ancestor in the census records (you know, the ones you can't find!) is a subject on which I have prepared a 90 minute talk. I have found that about 50% of the ones you think are missing are really just hiding under a badly misspelled surname or were given the wrong surname by the census enumerator or the indexer of the census pages.

Do you have elusive ancestors that you cannot find in the census? Tell me about them, and maybe I can help you find them.

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