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Overheard on the Message Boards: Not in Census Records?
by Rhonda R. McClure

Each week Rhonda answers a question from the GenForum message boards and gives her expert answer here. We'd love to hear anything you have to add. Go ahead and leave your comments on GenForum with the original message.

April 17, 2003
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: Can someone give me an idea as to why I cannot find a family that lived in the same city for several generations in the census for 1890, 1900, 1910, 1920, and 1930? The surname is very common with at least 3-4 different spellings. I have checked all variations. Head of household name evolved to something different, again I checked all these variations. Some were listed in the old city directories. Any ideas? -- Linda

A: For many years, the census was a resource that genealogists often could not access outside of a larger repository, such as a National Archives branch, or the Family History Library. Some public libraries with better genealogy departments may have offered census records for their state and maybe a few surrounding states, but seldom were you lucky enough to find the complete census available at such repositories.

Today the microfilmed census has been digitized and is now available online with a subscription to, for example,'s U.S. Census Collection. Most digitized collections also offer census indexes. What happens if you can't find your ancestor in the census? Does that mean that he or she isn't in the census? No, it simply means that your ancestor is not in the index.

Go beyond the census index, search the pages themselves.

But I've Searched Everything in the Index

So often researchers tell me that they haven't been able to find a person in the census. What they usually mean is that they haven't been able to find the person in the soundex, printed, or electronic index to the census. While I will be the first to admit that I am ever so thankful for all the information now available on CD-ROM and online, I also understand the limitations. Computers do not think. They do exactly what we tell them to do. When it comes to looking for a particular name, surname or given, a computer will only look for the spelling we have suggested or, in some cases, the soundex equivalent. While soundex was designed to make like-sounding names findable, it seems to me that this isn't always the case. All it takes is a different code and you will not find the name in question. Sometimes this doesn't have to do with the name you are searching for but with the way the developers of the index have coded the names in question.

While you may feel you have been thorough in your searching, and I don't doubt your efforts for a minute, you cannot really say with certainty that you have searched the census indexes for all variations of the spellings. All you can say for sure is that you have searched the census indexes for all known variations of the spelling of the surname and the given name. Depending on how you did it, are you sure that you covered all possible permutations of those two names?

You mentioned that you are certain of where your ancestors were living because you found them in city directories. If this is the case, then you may still be able to find them in the census. Keep in mind that even if you find them on the census page, you may never find them in the index. One way to try and locate your ancestor in the census is to use information from a city directory and convert it to a census enumeration district.

Using the City Directory to Its Fullest

Most city directories are more than just an alphabetical listing of inhabitants for that city. In some instances you may find a note alluding to the removal of an individual to another city or state. For your search, though, the important aspects of the city directory extend beyond this alphabetical listing of inhabitants.

Many city directories include a listing of the streets. For each street you will find its start and finish points in the city. In some instances you will even find the cross streets listed, including where in the house numbers that cross street can be found. When combined with a map of the city and your ancestors address, you will find you can pretty accurately pinpoint where your ancestor lived. Not just the street name, but which block he or she lived on.

In addition to your ancestor's address and the information about the street, you will want to look for the Ward boundaries. These are often described following the alphabetical list of street names. Most large cities, such as New York, have divided the city up into wards or some other jurisdictional division. You will need to use your ancestor's address and the street information to determine which Ward the address was likely to fall into.

If you are lucky, you will find that the city directory includes a map of the city. Armed with your address and street information, you will be able to pinpoint the location on the map and more easily determine which Ward your ancestor lived in.

A Research Case

In researching a Jacob Seletsky, I found that he did not appear in the 1920 Soundex for Massachusetts. I was a little frustrated because I had his death certificate and he died in Boston in 1922. I doubted he was out visiting the sights in 1920, and was convinced he was in the 1920 Census living in Boston.

I turned my attention to the 1920 city directory for Boston and was not surprised to find Jacob and his brother Joseph. Listed among a few other Seletskys I found

page 1446
Seletsky, Jacob clerk 374 Hanover h 95 Wayland
Seletsky, Joseph shoes 102 Salem and 374 Hanover h 7 Pinckney rd Dor

This told me that Jacob was a clerk in the store of his brother, Joseph, who sold shoes, and that Jacob lived on Wayland street at house number 95.

In addition to an alphabetical listing of individuals living in the city, the city directories for Boston have an alphabetical listing of the streets. I turned to this to find out where in the city of Boston I might find Wayland Street. The city directory gave me the two streets that Wayland begin and end at.

page 76
Wayland (Upham's Corner), from opp. 158 Magnolia to 9 Dacia, Ward 17 (PO 25)

This told me that I would find Wayland in Ward 17 of the city of Boston and that it was bounded by Magnolia and Dacia streets. I then turned my attention to the Enumeration District Descriptions for Massachusetts for 1920.

While it appeared that Wayland was a small street, I was hoping that Magnolia and Dacia would be mentioned in the enumeration district descriptions. Suffolk County, of which Boston is a part, is found in the sixth supervisor's district of Massachusetts. After locating Suffolk county in the descriptions, I first looked for Boston and then, specifically, Ward 17.

Ward 17 can be found in enumeration districts 426 through 447. While not an unreasonable number of enumeration districts to go through page by page, I was hoping that the enumeration district descriptions would help me cut that number down significantly. I decided to first look at the following enumeration districts based on their descriptions.

No. of
Description of
Enumeration District
County Rate of
426 Ward 17 - Precincts 1 and 2 and 4 (parts of) Bounded by:
West Cottage, Dudley
Magnolia, Robinhood
Hartford, Brookford
Blue Hill Avenue
Suffolk E  
428 Ward 17 - Precinct 4 (part of) Bounded by:
N.Y.N.H. and H.R.R.
Suffolk E  
429 Ward 17 - Precinct 4 (part of) Bounded by:
Suffolk E  
432 Ward 17 - Precincts 2 and 3 (parts of) Bounded by:
Woodcliff, Cunningham, Hartford, Bird
Blue Hill Avenue
Suffolk E  

Armed with this information, I knew that I needed to check enumeration districts 426, 428, 429 and 432. This was a much more manageable set of pages to go through, made even easier by the fact that I did not need to read each name of those living in the households, but instead could concentrate on the names of the streets as written on the side of each census sheet.

In enumeration district 432, I found a family of Jacob Selesky living at 95 Wayland Street just as he should be. Why hadn't I found him in the Soundex then? The difference in the spelling of the surname from "Seletsky" to "Selesky" changed the soundex code from S432 to S420 making it impossible to find him in the Soundex.

In Conclusion

As you can see by the case study it was a variation on the spelling of the surname that caused the individual to be omitted from the Soundex. Had I not pursued the census through the city directories and the Enumeration Maps, so to speak, I would probably never have found Jacob. Boston is far too big a city to use the page by page approach to looking for him. By combining the entries in the city directory, though, with additional census tools I did determine exactly where to find Jacob in the census. It is possible that this approach would work as well for you.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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