Maryland Genealogical Society
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When the head of the household is no longer listed, don't assume he/she is dead. It's possible that the former head of household is now living with one of the children (or anywhere else).
A census is an official counting of the population living in a specific place on a designated day set at intervals. The census places an ancestor is a specific place at a specific time.
U.S. federal censuses have been taken every 10 years beginning in 1790. Most of the 1890 Federal Census was destroyed in a fire. Census information is confidential for 72 years after the census is taken. The 1940 Census will be released in April 2012.
Soundex is a system of coding names for the census based on sound rather than alphabetical spelling. A variation called American Soundex was used in the 1930s to develop an index of the US censuses from 1890 through 1920, before the current online indexes were available. These Soundex "Indexes" are available on microfilm at the National Archives and might be useful if you can not find someone in the online index databases. If you need to find the Soundex Code for a surname, free Soundex converters are available at and other Web sites.
Don't overlook Census "Non-population" Schedules. In addition to the census "Population Schedules" that most people are familiar with, many Federal Censuses included other special Non-Population" schedules: Slave; Industry & Manufacturing; Agriculture; Mortality; Social Statistics; Union Veteran and Widow; Defective, Dependent and Delinquent. If your ancestor fit any of those categories, you may find useful information in those census schedules. While some are not as easy to access, they should not be overlooked.
In addition to the regular decennial censuses, the federal government took several special territorial censuses in the nineteenth century. Also, some states took their own censuses in the years between the federal censuses. These can provide important information, particularly if they cover the 1880's and 1890's, since the 1890 federal census was destroyed by fire. Partial censuses of Maryland exist for the years 1776 and 1778.
Tax lists can serve as substitutes for censuses in places and times when census records are not available.
Prepare a census timeline before you begin. Review what you will find in the census you are searching. Work backwards from the most recent census. Expect spelling and age variations.
When copying census information, copy everything exactly as it is written. Do not change or update the information even if you think it is incorrect.
Don't assume that all children listed in the census belong to the wife listed. This may be a second wife and the children a combination of "his and hers."
When you're looking at a census record, be sure to look at 10 families before and 10 families after the family you are researching. These individuals are most likely the friends (and possibly family) of your ancestor.
A person whom you know or believe was deceased before the date on a census record may still appear in the record if they were alive on the "official census day." The census was supposed to reflect the composition of each household as of the official day, regardless of whether they were visited and recorded at a slightly later date.
If you don't find someone (Part 1): some people are listed incorrectly in the Census. Some are listed incorrectly in indexes (although correct in the actual census). Then there are nicknames, alternate names and alternate spellings of names. Do "wildcard searches." If a child's father died and you know his step-father's last name, you might find the child with the stepfather's last name.
If you don't find someone (Part 2): Occasionally, pages are missing from online images, although the pages exist. If you don't find a person you believe lived in a particular location, consider all these possibilities and look for another resource on that census (there are several online collections, plus the original microfilm). Try to manually search each page in the Enumeration District you believe they lived in.
If you don't find someone (Part 3): the entire Census process is subject to human error, from initial recording to indexing to putting images online and correctly linking to them. But some people were missed completely, intentional and otherwise. Sometimes, entire neighborhoods or streets were missed. It happened. If you've explored all the strategies in Part 1 and 2 above, sometimes you have to move on.