This is a guest post, written by Cheri Hudson Passey, a Professional Genealogist, Instructor, Writer and Speaker. Cheri is the owner of Carolina Girl Genealogy, LLC which provides research services as well as instruction and coaching though her Genealogy 1-on-1 classes. Born in South Carolina, Cheri has roots in the state for many generations. Her blog Carolina Girl Genealogy has helped tell the story of these ancestors and her research process. Cheri Hudson Passey writes the Modus Operandi column for Going In-Depth Magazine and is a contributor to the Worldwide Genealogy Blog.

You can contact Cheri by email or by visiting her blog Carolina Girl Genealogy.

Census records are often the first place we begin looking when starting out on our genealogy journey or are adding a new branch to our tree. They can be a wonderful source of information giving us names, dates and places, but are we missing out on what else they can tell us?

Before the enumerators set out to collect information on the residents in their assigned areas, they were given a set of instructions to guide them in asking the questions on the forms.

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For instance, from the instructions given to the enumerators taking the 1850 census we read "The names of every member of a family who may have died since the 1st day of June is to be entered and described as if living, but the name of any person born since the 1st day of June is to be omitted". [i]

This may explain why someone isn't listed when you thought they should be.

One of my favorite instructions given for the 1880 Census states "Use the word "huckster" in all cases where it applies."

It is important to look at each column to see how the question was answered. Does it give you a clue as to where you should search next for answers? For example, the 1910 Census asked if the person was a Civil War Veteran. If marked yes, researching Civil War Military Records should be added to your to-do list.

Also in 1910, a question was added about number of marriages. Was your ancestor married more than once? It's interesting to note that 'M2' did not necessarily mean it was the second marriage. It simply meant that this was not the first marriage.[ii] It could have been the second or third or more, meaning that more work needs to be done to locate earlier marriages.

1910 U.S. Federal Census, South Carolina, Kershaw County James L. Williams family showing both husband and wife had been married more than once.

Starting in 1890, how many children were born to the mother and how many were living is recorded. This was continued in 1900, 1910 and 1940. This may be the only indication there were children born to the couple who had previously passed away. Search for them in church records, cemeteries and in family Bibles. Keep in mind stillbirths were not counted.[iii]

1900 U.S. Federal Census, South Carolina, Aiken County Cam Price Family -Showing 5 Children Born; 3 Living

Did you know that in 1920 the instructions were to record a married woman as having the same citizenship as her husband?[iv] She may or may not be from the same place, so never assume that this information is accurate without confirming using other records.

The census is a tool for more than finding information on your family. It can also help you to understand their neighborhood and discover more family living nearby. Go through and collect the names and occupations of people who lived several pages ahead and after your targeted person. What does it tell you about where they lived? These people make up a part of your ancestor's FAN (Friends, Associates and Neighbors) Club. They also may be the in-laws, cousins or other family members. Understanding the neighborhood may help while looking for your people in other census years. Many small towns and villages stayed much the same over the years with people living next to each other for generations.

When is the last time you went back to a census record in which an ancestor was previously found? It's always good to take another at documents. You may discover you missed something the first time or new information may lead you see something in a different light.

Give the U.S. Federal Census Population Schedules a second look! You never know what you may find!

Helping you climb your family tree,


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Search Guide: US Census

[i] University of Minnesota, IPUMS, 1910 Enumerator Instructions

[ii] University of Minnesota, IPUMS, USA ( accessed 17 April 2017), 1850 Enumerator Instructions

[iii] University of Minnesota, IPUMS, 1910 & 1940 Enumerator Instructions,

[iv] University of Minnesota, IPUMS, 1920 Enumerator Instructions