Generally people begin their genealogy research with the census records. The census records are great to search because you can find out a lot of information, not only about the one ancestor you're searching for, but his/her entire family as well. Census records are invaluable because they're government enforced records and they occur every 10 years. Now, if you're an expert or seasoned genealogist, chances are you've dug into the census records a bit, but have moved onto more complex records to uncover more about your ancestor.
But revising the census can help you overcome brick walls quickly and get the pieces to the puzzle that you might not have realized you already had in your arsenal.
Here are some of the reasons why the census records are worth revisiting, even if you've already reviewed them.
1. Mistakes happen
The census records can be prone to mistakes. In a perfect world, the enumerators would have evaluated and verified all the information received from the head of household, but enumerators are human and unfortunately, humans make mistakes.
Enumerators could have misheard what your ancestor was telling them, they could have spelled names incorrectly, or if your ancestor had a thick accent, there's a possibility that the enumerator was making a best-guess at the spelling and information provided.
Enumerators aren't the only ones to blame for mistakes. Often if the head of household was away, children would help fill in the missing details, which could cause discrepancies because children might mix up birth dates or the spelling of names, etc.
Also, if the head of household was away, there's a chance that the neighbors provided the information about the family. Now, neighbors were much closer back then, but would you feel comfortable answering those questions about your neighbors? There is a chance that the neighbors didn't count all the people in the household, especially if an elderly parent moved back in, or recently married sons or daughters moved back in temporarily.
There's also the possibility that your ancestor couldn't read or write very well. If that's the case, then when asked for the spellings of names of the family members, etc. that some mistakes could have occurred unintentionally.
But as a more seasoned genealogist, you may have thought a few members of your family may have just been missing from the census records you've searched previously, but they may be listed under a different name due to one of these mistakes, so it's worth going back in to make sure you've tracked down all your ancestors.
There's also a possibility that your ancestor may have changed the spelling of his/her name or decided to go by his/her middle name instead, so you should be sure to keep note of these differences.
Example from the 1930 census, my grandfather's name is spelled "Allen," although it should be spelled Alan
My grandfather, Alan, listed with his name spelled correctly in the 1940 census.
Search tip: Since mistakes do occur be sure to use either the wildcard search function and/or the variant name spelling option on the search pages.
2. Neighbors can help you break through brick walls
When you're just starting to search the US census records then there's a possibility you ignored the families listed on the same pages as your own, which is completely normal. But, it's really important to go back in and trace and follow the neighboring families as well since they can likely reveal more details about your ancestor.
Families didn't move very often in the past and often neighbors grew up together and often got married when they grew up, so tracing your neighbors and watching these relationships unfold can help you build more context around your family history. For example, maybe growing up the daughters in each family were great friends, you might just see that neighbor you've been tracing in a newspaper announcement for your ancestor's wedding! It's always a good idea to trace the neighboring families along with your own to see if you can learn anything else.
Found in the 1940 census
3. Rebels in your family history
You may have some rebels in your family history, which could explain why you can't locate them in the census records, or might give you clues as to other records to search for those rebellious ancestors. Sometimes people refused to provide accurate information to enumerators as a form of protest against the government and others would refuse to provide accurate information in fear of the government. The reasons for these rebellions will vary based on current events throughout time, but there are rare instances of these occurrences. If you suspect your ancestor to be a rebellious type, it's worth browsing census records by location or trying to uncover more details about your ancestor through the newspapers to see if you can search an alias in the census records. You might not be able to find anything on your rebellious ancestor (as they had planned!), but if you can uncover more about them in the census, it certainly makes for a great story!
If you have lodgers in your census records then they are worth investigating. At first glance, these lodgers may seem like ranch hands or guests staying at your ancestor's home or homestead, for example, but they can actually be listed as "lodgers," but be family members or previous neighbors staying with the family. Look into the lodgers and dig a bit into those relationships to see if you can connect any dots with them. They could just be lodgers temporarily living in your ancestor's household, but they could also be a long lost ancestor you didn't realize you had!
Lodgers captured in the 1930 census
5. Family relationships
One thing to watch for and to make sure you verify with additional records are family relationships. Often adoptions happened without records of it and that could alter the way children are portrayed in relationship to the head of household. Also, if a child went to live with another family member for a period of time they may report the child as a son or daughter despite being a niece or a nephew, for example. These situations occur more often than you might think due to a variety of reasons, so be sure to verify the data presented with other records as well. In the record below, my grandfather, Joseph, was listed as Carl Edmondson's son; however, I know that Carl Edmondson was really his uncle, so this caused a bit of confusion when the 1930 census had a different father listed!
Taken from the 1940 census
Ready to dive back into your census search?