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Overheard in GenForum: 1920 Census for Kings County, New York
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.

August 31, 2000
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: Can anyone tell me how I could obtain a copy of the 1920 Kings County, New York Census? -- Joe

A: Census records are one of the most sought after records and yet many people, especially those new to genealogy, do not know how to access them, only that they exist.

While the census is available for the decennial years of 1790 to 1920, some of them offer more information to genealogists than others. The most recently available ones offer more details into the lives of our ancestors.

You are told to look at the census, but where do you find it?

Finding the Census

The Census records are available in a number of places. First, there are some surviving original record books, often found in the state's archives. However, for most of us, it is the microfilm version that we find.

Microfilm copies of the census records are found in a number of different places, including:

  • Genealogy Departments of public libraries
  • Historical societies
  • Local Family History Centers
  • Family History Library
  • National Archives branches
  • National Archives
  • Microfilm rental companies
  • Online

Of course, just finding them isn't always the only step.

Finding Your Family in the Census

Most think that the hardest part is getting to the census records. However, most discover that once you find the actual microfilms, that you then have to determine just which of the microfilm reels is the one you need.

As the years progress with the census, the number of reels per county often goes up. Sometimes it is something manageable like two reels of microfilm, and other times, such as in your quest, an unwieldy 39 reels. The thought of having to search line-by-line for an individual in 39 reels quickly deflates even the most enthusiastic of genealogists.

The trick is to understand what is available to help in such a search. After all, if you have to order microfilms through your local Family History Center, you don't want to have to order 39 reels, when your ancestor is going to be on just one.

Soundex and Maps

For most of us the first stop should be the soundex films. Soundexing is an index based on the phonics rather than the exact spelling. The idea was that like-sounding surnames would be grouped together, making it easier to locate an ancestor even if the surname wasn't spelled exactly right.

The soundex cards that have been filled out for the 1880 (for families with a child aged 10 or less), 1900, 1910 (only 21 states), and 1920 were a WPA project. These WPA projects gave work to many people during the 1930s when the economy of the entire country was devastated from the stock market crash of 1929.

I think many of us forget that this is where some of the most frequently used resources come from. However, the soundex cards are just one of the options. As you can see above there are gaps in what is soundexed. And when you discover a gap, you need to turn your attention to enumeration maps. You can read more about this in Help with Unindexed Census Records.

In Conclusion

Because Kings County for 1920 is on 39 reels of microfilm, your first step will be in getting the appropriate soundex film. Determine which of the repositories in the list has the microfilms. You may find that the public library has the census, but that you need to order the soundex through your local Family History Center.

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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