We have relied on indexes to the federal census records for so long that we sometimes panic when we discover that the census we need is not indexed. I am referring directly to the 1880 census (which indexed only those houses that had children aged 10 and under) and the 1910 census (which was indexed for only 21 states).
However, even the 1900 and 1920 census indexes are not 100% accurate. As such, even with these indexes, you may find yourself needing to go to the actual census pages without having an exact page to turn to. What to do?
Enumeration district descriptions can help when there is no index available for the census you are researching.
Enumeration District Maps
There are some often-overlooked aids that can be of use to you in this situation. For the 1880, 1900, 1910 and 1920 census there are descriptions of the enumeration districts on microfilm. They are also sometimes referred to as Enumeration District Maps, though they do not actually have graphic maps as you might expect.
Instead each state is broken down by Supervisor's District and thereunder by Enumeration District. For each enumeration district there is some sort of description, followed by the county and any possible special instructions. In some cases the population for the particular ED is also included.
Effective Use Needs Other Research
To be able to effectively use this aid, you need to know the street address for your ancestor. Impossible you say? Not necessarily. Addresses can be found in many ways. They are sometimes found on vital records. One researcher I know was researching an immigrant ancestor and that ancestor listed his brother as his sponsor and included his street address. City directories are another resource for finding street addresses. And city directories often have the added benefit of being able to tell you what ward or other geopolitical division the city may be divided in.
Once you have the street address, you can turn your attention to the enumeration district descriptions. When using these, you may not find the name of your street. That is why finding the ward in the city directory can be so helpful. Generally the description of the enumeration district includes the outer boundaries for that ED or the city ward. This is why it is possible for your street to be included but not listed.
Working with an Entry
Here is an entry found in the 1910 enumeration district descriptions. This particular one is for Pennsylvania: ED 9
East Providence township (part of) - All north of the center of the Chambersburg and Bedford turnpike.
So how do you find your person without going line by line? Well the street names are included in the census. This means you can scan the census pages looking for the street name rather than having to search names of all the people on the page. This can greatly reduce the time it takes to search a census for your ancestors.
While such a system still requires a little bit of work and ingenuity on your part, the enumeration district maps make it a lot easier to determine where in a large city, especially, a person is likely to be located. These maps will save you time, because you will not need to go line-by-line through the census.
These microfilms can be ordered through your local Family History Centers and may be found at public libraries with good genealogy collections.