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Elizabeth Shown Mills, CG, CGL, FASG, FNGS, FUGA, “Censuses—Often-Overlooked Basics,” OnBoard 4 (January 1998): 8.

“I checked the 1850 census of Jones County and did not find Peleg Pettipool.”

As genealogists, we have probably seen or heard such a statement at least 4,327 times. It comes to us from relatives working the same family lines. We hear it from fellow members of genealogical societies. If we are professionals, we get it from clients. We read it in reports written by people who have been paid to do research for others. BCG even sees it in applications.

Such a barebones account of census work raises several crucial questions:

  • Was the actual census read—or did the searcher rely upon a published index? If so, which index? In many cases, more than one finding aid is available, with quality varying widely between them.
  • What census was checked—federal, state, or local? In random years and places, counts were taken by multiple levels of government.
  • If the federal census is meant, which schedule was searched? In 1850, five different schedules listed people by name—i.e., the free population, slave (which listed owners or overseers, when owners were absent), industrial, agricultural, and mortality schedules.
  • If the general free population schedule is meant, which copy was used—the one forwarded to Washington, the one sent to the state government, or the one deposited locally? Differences very often exist between one version and the other.

A generation ago, available resources were much more limited. American genealogists who spoke of “using the census” almost invariably referred to the National Archives (NARA) microfilm of the population schedule of the federal copy of the U.S. census.

Today’s genealogists have far more options available. Thorough researchers use them all—and take care to identify exactly the record they consulted.

Maximizing Results

Proficient use of today’s supply of census records is a complex process requiring a broad knowledge of research methodology and human nature. The following are just the “absolute basics”:

Simple search:

  1. Identify all available resources. Censuses and indexes vary widely between areas and across time. Learn the strengths and weaknesses of those relevant to your place of interest.
  2. Begin with the indexes. Primarily, these treat population schedules. Whether you use the Census Bureau’s miracode or soundex, or the various commercially prepared indexes, the principle is the same. The index is not the record. It is only a finding aid to the actual record—and invariably it is a flawed one. Any data found in an index is used only to locate the actual entry.
  3. Find and use the actual population return. Extract all data. This includes all information on the page heading, all page numbers penned or stamped on the sheet, all details for the entire household in which the relevant person lived, and identification of neighbors. Judiciously consider all other individuals of the same surname in the same district—if not the same county. Their identities may be meaningless to us now, but they often hold the clue to our ancestor’s birth family and origins.
  4. Read all other relevant schedules. The detail provided by the population schedule normally suggests whether the ancestor should be found on another schedule as a slaveowner; a farmer; a craftsman; or the owner of a business, mine, or fishery. If so, additional information should be available on the related schedule. In all cases, the mortality schedule (when available) should be checked—as should any extant state and local copies of the population schedule.

If the ancestor does not seem to be in indexes, then we have several additional steps to perform.

Basic trouble-shooting:

  1. Recheck all index(es) for all conceivable variant spellings.
  2. Read the original population schedule line by line, to be certain the indexers did not (a) misread the name; (b) omit it entirely; or (c) fail to pick it up simply because the person was living in a household headed by someone else of the same surname. Stay alert to erroneous renderings of his name made by the original enumerator.
  3. If relatives or neighbors are known from other records, attempt to locate them—then scrutinize their neighborhood(s) more closely.
  4. If the problem persists, check pagination throughout the entire census to be certain that pages are not omitted.
  5. If pages appear to be missing, contact the National Archives and request a check of the original returns for the missing sheets—but do not ask for a name search.
  6. If NARA does not have the missing page(s) and Step 4 of the simple search has not been performed, do it! Many people omitted from the federal copy can be found on state or local copies. Others who cannot be located on the population return can be found on the agricultural or industrial or mortality or slave schedules.

Above all, we keep a full log of the efforts we have made—the exact schedules we checked, the exact variants we searched for, the exact materials we tried to find but could not locate. We owe this “track record” to ourselves and anyone else to whom we report, “I checked the 1850 census but could not find Peleg.”


Elizabeth Shown Mills, CG, CGL

This article was originally published in OnBoard, BCG’s educational newsletter and is protected by copyright. Individuals may download and print copies for their personal study. Educators are granted permission to provide copies to their students as long as BCG, OnBoard, and the appropriate author are credited as the source of the material. Republication elsewhere is not permitted.