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Resources for Beginning Genealogists: Finding Your Ancestor in the Census

What is Genealogy?

Genealogy is the process of creating a family tree via searching through records and paper documents.  It has rapidly gained popularity over the past decade. Online databases have made genealogical research much more accessible, essentially bringing archival documents into your living room. Television shows like Finding Your Roots and Who Do You Think You Are? have transformed the way people think about genealogy and family history research, changing it from something your great-aunt does obsessively in her retirement to something celebrities like QuestLove, Mandy Moore, and Anderson Cooper are interested in.

For many Americans, genealogy is interesting because our ancestors come from all over the world, and unless they were Native American, have only been living in North America for 500 years at the most. Genealogy can help us better understand family history and what cultures influenced the traditions and stories we grew up with and may pass on to children and grandchildren. While some of the methods here are applicable to anyone doing genealogy, other records are more tailored to African American genealogy, which faces specific challenges due to slavery.

Websites like and make beginning family history research convenient. These sites digitize and publish records, like the state and federal census (from 1940 and earlier) and vital records, so they are easily accessible from the comfort of anywhere you have internet access. Some sites, like FamilySearch, are free to use with the creation of an account; others, like Ancestry, are by subscription, where you pay monthly to access the records. Other databases have a more specialized focus — Fold3 is mostly military records, and FindAGrave is…exactly what it sounds like.

When beginning family history research, it is most useful to start with a more general database (like FamilySearch or Ancestry) to begin researching your family.

Getting Started

To begin researching your family history, it is helpful to start with a family member who was born in 1940 or earlier because of the privacy hold on census records. The federal census has a 72 year privacy hold. Though the census can be used for statistics and figuring out how many representatives each state gets, all individual identifying information must remain completely confidential for 72 years. The 1950 census will be released in 2022. For many people, using a grandparent to get started works well. (For your initial attempt, it may help to choose a family member with a less common name, so that you’re not immediately faced with untangling the lines of multiple John Smiths.)

The first goal is to locate the person you started with in the census or a vital document like a birth, marriage, or death certificate. Those documents are especially helpful because they often list the names of someone closely related to the person you started with, and can build a bridge between generations; i.e., a birth/marriage/death certificate usually lists the name of the parents of the person the record is about, and a census usually lists people in household groups. If you’re starting with one person, and you don’t know very much, some of the most helpful documents are going to be the census and vital records because they are multigenerational. Other records – like city directories, yearbooks, social security indexes, land records, tax records, and public records – are helpful as you try to fill out more details about the lives of individual members in your family.

The Federal Census

The census is a truly wonderful document when getting started with genealogy. It can give you so much information not only about your individual family, but also about the people who lived around them and formed their community. The census, which has been taken every ten years since 1790, lists everyone in an area by household. It has collected varying levels of information, as the questions change with each census. Post-1870, the census lists everyone’s relationship to the head of household, their marital status, race, birth year, occupation, education level and literacy, state or country of birth, and, between 1880 and 1930, the state or country where the parent was born.

Example of the 1930 census listing the author’s great-grandfather Horace Scruggs as a 32-year-old adult (highlighted in yellow). He is a head of household, living with his own family (highlighted in green): his wife, two daughters, and son Horace (the author’s grandfather).

You can use all of the information the census provides as clues for the previous generation. Example: say you find your grandfather as an 8-year-old in the 1930 census. He is living with both of his parents and one older sibling, age 12, and one younger sibling, age 5. They are living in New Jersey, but their birthplace, as well as their parents’ birthplace is listed as Virginia.” The occupation of the head of the household (your grandfather’s father) is laborer” and the wife (your grandfather’s mother) is keeping house. They are 35 and 33, respectively. From just these columns in the document, you would have your clues for the next place you might find your great-grandparents. By doing some basic math, you can figure out that their birth years are 1895 and 1897, and that the first child would have been born in 1918. Equipped with that new information, you would try to find them in an earlier census, like the 1920 census. At that time, they would be living in Virginia (since you know they were still there when the youngest sibling was born in 1925), and they would have a two year old child (your grandfather’s older sibling). If you can locate them in that census, you can also look to see who your family members are living near, because that would have been the community that they were a part of prior to moving north.

Working backward into the 1900 census, the author’s great-grandfather now appears as a two-year-old child (yellow highlight), living with his parents and siblings (green highlight) in the same area of Virginia.

Parents, siblings, and extended family may be living in the surrounding households, so it is important to read the census and see who else is listed on the pages before and after the one where your family is listed. Once you’ve located them, gather the information that those entries provide, and then continue searching for other documents relating to members of that household. Hopefully, one of those documents will lead you to the previous generation.

Encountering Roadblocks

Unfortunately, not everyone has an easy time using websites like or after a certain point. Thanks to white supremacy, slavery, and the Constitution, most African Americans weren’t considered people until emancipation in 1865. This is reflected in public documents such as the census. From 1790 to 1860, enslaved African Americans were not listed on the census by first and last name, but as numbers within the household of their enslaver. The 1850 and 1860 census included a slave schedule”, which listed the enslaver’s name, and used check marks in boxes classifying enslaved people by age, height, and sex. In addition to the challenges posed by the inherent bias of the census, many other categories of documents that could be helpful for researching enslaved ancestors can be difficult to access, since they have not been digitized or made publicly available. The next post in this series will cover getting beyond some of those roadblocks.