Crouching Ancestors, Hidden Families: Finding Your Missing Ancestors in Census Records
Census records are one of the basic building blocks of genealogy in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. Unfortunately, there are times when it can be difficult to locate your ancestor in a particular census. This could be for any number of reasons.
When I first started researching, much of the census was available only by scrolling through microfilm and reading page after page of handwritten information. Genealogical societies and some companies had started creating print indexes. In today’s digital age we have come to rely on websites providing electronic access to indexes that link to images of census records.
1925 Census Taker in the Netherlands
Unfortunately, these indexes (like the printed ones of a generation ago) are nowhere near perfect. Names are easily misread by people unfamiliar with the localities. Thus, the indexes are filled with incorrect names, making it difficult to find your people. This situation is only exacerbated if you have a non-English surname.
Sometimes the error may be in the original. In early years, the census takers often wrote the information on paper and then brought the papers home to transcribe them onto the official form. This allows opportunity for errors, such as forgetting to transcribe a family or accidentally transposing information in different rows or columns. The census taker may have even had difficulty reading their own handwriting.
One way to find your missing ancestors is to look for families that lived next to them in the prior census (or the one following). Search for those families and scan the pages around them. Your ancestors may pop right out at you. You may also be able to figure out how the name was misread and actually located them in the census index.
If that doesn’t work, check city directories to confirm their address. Many directories have criss-cross sections, which list the residents by address. Checking the census indexes for families known to have lived near your ancestors may help you find them in the census.
There is also the old-fashioned way. Instead of scrolling through microfilm, however, you will be reading through page after page of digital images of electronic images, searching for your family. If they lived in a city or other large community, city directories may be able to help you limit the search by showing you what ward your ancestor lived in. You can then start your search just in that ward.
There is always the chance that you can’t find your ancestor in the indexes because they are not listed in the census. They may have been away visiting family, or just not home when the census taker came. And some folks wanted nothing to do with the government, and simply refused to answer the questions.