Find Your Family in the Census – 10 Search Strategies for Success

by | 4 Jan 2022

We all have ancestors we would swear were somehow skipped or overlooked by the census taker. It’s more than likely that some of them were. More often, however, it’s an error on the part of the enumerator or indexer that has us running in circles. The next time your census searches come up empty, try these strategies for locating your ‘misplaced’ ancestor.

  1. Try a wildcard search. If you aren’t sure how to spell a name, some census search engines allow you to use special symbols called wildcards to represent some number of unknown letter or letters in a word. Check the search tips or instructions for the database or website you’re using for any specific wildcard rules and symbols, but most (including Ancestry and FamilySearch) use the following:

    • An asterisk (*) represents zero or more characters.
    • A question mark (?) represents a single character.
    • General wildcard rules:

      • Can usually be placed at the beginning or end of a word, as well as in the middle. Some websites require a non-wildcard character at either the beginning or the end, but some (like Ancestry) do not as long as enough other search parameters are included.
      • Often requires at least three non-wildcard characters (Ancestry and FamilySearch will work with two, and even one).
      • Check exact search for the best results. Wildcards will generally still work without it, but the results may not follow the rules as intended.
  2. Familiarize yourself with nicknames. It’s not uncommon to find families providing census takers with their formal birth names in one census, and then using the names their friends and family called them by in another. Mary might be listed as Polly, Alexander as Alex or Al, and Elizabeth as Betsy, Bessie, Beth or Eliza. 

  3. Check the middle names too. It’s more common than you might think to find a family with every member listed by first name in one census and then by middle name in the following census. Most people wouldn’t even recognize them as the same family! As with nicknames, in many areas of the world it is common for an individual to be known to families and friends by his middle name. Be sure to search for middle names, baptismal names, and other alternate names. 

  4. Search by surname and location. When you’re pretty sure you know where an ancestor was living but traditional searches just aren’t turning him up, try searching by surname only – restricting by state, county, district, or town, as necessary to bring the number of results down to a reasonable number for browsing. You may even discover previously unknown relatives! If the name is common, try adding an approximate age as well.

  5. Search for initials. When you can’t narrow down the location enough to use surname only search, and you can’t find them listed under their first name, check for initials. Sometimes those census enumerators were lazy! Initials may have been used for first name, middle name or both. M C Owens would come up under a search for either ‘M Owens’ or ‘C Owens,’ for example. You can use wildcards for this in both Ancestry and FamilySearch (see #1).

  6. Search for siblings, children or other family members. When an every name index is available, don’t forget about the rest of the family! Your ancestor’s first name may have been hard for the indexer to read or hard for the enumerator to spell, but her brother’s may have been a bit easier.  

  7. Search for neighbors. If your ancestors have been living in the same place for a while, search for people who were listed nearby in neighboring census years. If you find a neighbor in the index, then head to his page and check a few pages on either side for your ancestor. 

  8. Swap the first and last name. Census enumerators (and indexers) sometimes trip up and enter the name in the wrong box. This can especially be true for when the individual’s given name could also be a surname.

  9. Leave out the name entirely. When all else fails, and the search engine offers enough other options, forego the name and search by other known facts. Searching for someone living in Wilson County, NC, in 1850 who was born in Virginia in 1789 will narrow down the field considerably. Sometimes this is the only way you’ll find those people whose names were seriously mangled during the indexing process.  Either using no names or given names only is also a good strategy for finding women who remarried.

  10. Search the individual census database if possible. Different census years have different columns, and different information may have been pulled out when creating each index. Searching each specific census database (e.g., the 1910 U.S. Census) directly may offer additional search fields (such as parents’ names or birth places) that won’t work for other census years. 


Any of these census search techniques can be used in combination.

For example, searching by the first name only, along with other identifying information such as date and place of birth, can also turn up possible matches for women who have married. Or if you’re trying to locate a family with a hard to spell surname (Eastern European, for example), you can leave out the surname and search with the first name, age, and the birthplace of one of the parents along with a first name, age, and birthplace for one of their children (preferably one with a slightly more unusual name than Mary or John if possible). Recombine and repeat as necessary!

©2024 Kimberly Powell. Use of this article elsewhere without permission violates copyright. Short excerpts and links are welcome, with credit and a link back to Learn Genealogy.

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