How to Search Census Records

If you are researching a family connected to a place, one of the first stops to glean more information is the census records. The records are available several places online, but the easiest option for armchair research if you have a Handley Regional Library card is HeritageQuest Online. Input the barcode number from your library card and you can search records from 1790-1950 in a variety of ways. Aside from the obvious searches for family names, here are some tips when tracking down something you know should be there but you can’t quite find.

1. Change your census year!
If you know from oral histories, deeds, or city directories your targets should have been at a location spanning at least two census collection dates but they aren’t appearing in one year, try the next year in your search results. You may be able to use some information on the second census to help you circle back to the first.

2. Search for a neighbor!
If you know the names of the neighbors to a property you are researching and they are more unique than “John Smith,” try searching for them instead. The census recorders usually went street by street or block by block, and by paging forward or backward from the neighbor’s entry you may find your target street and house number in the margins.

3. Try the residence number search!
Not all census records have this option, but if it’s available and you don’t have any other leads to try first, it will save more time than flipping through the records blindly. We’ve noticed the street names are often the worst for the record transcribers to get right because they are squashed in the margins, so you may have to get creative if you try this search option.

4. Double check your location!
More than once I’ve found myself ticking the wrong ward or district box, or even the wrong Winchester from the autocomplete suggestions. Don’t forget that some buildings that are firmly in the city today were originally in Frederick County (this goes for deed searching, too!).

5. But be aware…
There are some gaps in the census records – the 1890 census is one of the victims of record destruction, for example. The very earliest censuses only recorded the head of household’s name and a tally of others in the home by age, sex, and race. Some recorded places of birth; others recorded occupations. The forms were tweaked every time for whatever information was deemed relevant to capture at that point.

6. Go beyond the basics!
Sometimes you just can’t quite get the research to come together as you hope. Heritage Quest has also put together a collection of Research Aids to help you think of some other avenues of research, or ways to put the results you found to better use.

Happy researching!