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Overheard on the Message Boards: General Census Question
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.

May 23, 2002
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: I want to find relatives in the 1900 census. I know the general area where they lived at the time. Where would I find an index to that area to find their names (that would then lead me to the page of the census), rather than looking at every name on every page of their township? -- Amy

A: Census records are one of those most frequently used records by genealogists. There are also misunderstood many times. As beginning researchers, we often know just enough about the census to be dangerous — to ourselves.

There are different census indexes available, each comes with a set of caveats. Also, there are ways to research unindexed census records (an important strategy now that the 1930 census has been released).

Census indexes are plentiful, though some may have limitations.

Census Indexes

First a look at the different types of indexes that exist for the census. There are published indexes, government generated indexes, and now some electronic indexes.

Published indexes
The published indexes can be found for census years 1790 through about 1870. These indexes were the first to come forth for genealogists and made searching for individuals easier. The catch with the published indexes is that they are generally limited to the head of the household. If you are trying to find a child, it is necessary to locate each index entry in the census to rule them out. This is do-able with the uncommon surname, but tends to be daunting with those more common.

Government generated indexes
These are the indexes compiled through the WPA programs in the 1930s. The index, known as the Soundex, was used to index the 1880 (part), 1900, 1910 (part), 1920, and 1930 (part) censuses. This index relies on a four digit code for each surname. The goal with this system was to group like sounding surnames together, to make finding individuals easier regardless of slight spelling variations. The 1880 was the first to be Soundexed and the children counted in this census would be of age in the 1930s to need social security. As a result, the 1880 census has been Soundexed for those families with children age 10 and younger. The 1910 census has only 21 states indexed and the 1930 has only 12 southern states indexed.

Electronic indexes
There are a number of volunteer groups indexing census records and making the information available online. You may want to check with the USGenWeb Census Project to find out what might be available for your research areas. And you can access the 1900 census, indexed by head of household, online as well. When you search the 1900 census online, you'll get to the actual census page for the head of household listing you select. Another recently released electronic index, is the 55-CD set created by the Family History Library of the 1880 census. This is an every-name index, which then shows you the family unit. Even though you'll usually find enough information to identify your individual, I encourage you to then go to the original census page as well.

The Unindexed Census

As was mentioned above, there are some census years that are not indexed completely. The 1910 and 1930 come immediately to mind. There has been much frustration by researchers when this is discovered.

When you are researching a rural area, the line-by-line method that you were using is really the best one. It gives you a good feel for the community at hand, and it is from that community that the children in the family you are searching will select their spouses. The more you know about the community the more the names will mean to you as you continue to research that family in other records.

However, when you are researching in the urban areas, for example a large city that take four or five rolls of microfilm for the enumeration of one year, then it is impossible to go page by page. Instead you must narrow the search down. One way is through city directories. City directories, an alphabetical listing of the inhabitants of a given city, when used in combination with enumeration district maps and descriptions let you narrow your search from five rolls of film to select enumeration districts on one roll of film.

This topic was discussed in great details recently, here on In fact, this approach sometimes proves fruitful when researching a family that should show up in the Soundex but doesn't. Just such a case is explored in Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: There May Be More than One Way.

Not Found in the Index

There will be times when using the above described indexes that you cannot find the individual in question. This happens more frequently then we like to contemplate. Spelling variations are generally the most common cause, especially when searching through electronic database indexes for the census. Computers are unforgiving when it comes to the spelling we choose. Unless the index search supports wild cards (a character you can use to replace one or more letters of the name) you will find you need to search for each variant spelling one at a time. Or, if possible, have the index show you the first one spelling of the surname and then scroll forward and back looking for the other spellings yourself. This is an option in the 1900 census when you search a specific state.

In's 1900 census, which you cannot search on a wild card, you can tell the site to concentrate on a specific state. The form that appears allows you to be taken to the surname in question or to search for an individual by supplying the given name and surname. When I know there are many variations, I will elect to search the surname only and then I will scan through the list page by page looking for individuals with the different spelling variations. Remember the 1900 census index on is a head of household index only. This means that a family of six will be listed under the name of the head of the household. If your individual was boarding with someone else though they may show up since their surname is different from the rest of the household.

In Conclusion

As you can see, there are many different types of indexes. Some are available online while others are only available in book form. Start with your local library to see what they may have to offer and then look to see what has to offer as part of their different online subscriptions. Finally ask fellow researchers if they know of the availability of a specific index or what issues about an index you need to be aware of before using it.

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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