How do you find missing people in the Census records?

You have searched and searched but you can’t find certain families in all the Census records.

The most likely reason is that the names you are searching for are not the names that were recorded in that Census. There may have been verbal transcription errors. There may have been indexing errors. For details see the post: What were their names?

Here are a few strategies to locate the missing families.

The first place I would start is at because they have some of the best “fuzzy” search algorithms. They can search on misspelled names, tables of similar names, sounds like names and other information.

Even better, they can search on family structure not just on the individual person. That means they will search for the head of household, the spouse, the children, and the grandchildren in the family unit.

Here are the strategy I would try in the following order.

  1. Make sure you have a family tree at ancestry already set up with all the information you know. This is a time saving tip. When you start a search at ancestry, and type in at least 3 characters of a first name, they will pop up a list of probably matches from your family tree. Select someone and it will fill in the entire family structure in the search form.
  2. Ancestry searches sometimes remember previous search options that you chose. To reset to default, click the check box “Match all terms exactly” twice.
  3. Be optimistic and first search by the head of household. You have probably already done this and found nothing.
  4. Remember to scan through the matches in the search and open the Census image to see if you found the right family. Check addresses, occupations, ages, children etc.
  5. OK. You didn’t find them. That is why you are reading this.
  6. Next, go to the search form and delete the surname and search again. This is often the fastest and best method to finding the missing people. This search is looking for a family whose member’s first names in the family unit match what you know. If you are lucky, you will find them with a garbled surname.
  7. If this fails, clear the search form, start with the spouse’s first name, get all the familly member names, delete the surname and search again. This may succeed if the head of household’s first name was missing or totally garbled beyond recognition.
  8. If this fails, search again on the family structure starting with each of the children. Use first the child with the most common, Americanized name.

Did you find them?
There are other things to try.

Different web sites may have a more accurate index into the Census you are trying to search. was the first to put the 1940 Federal Census search index online. But, they had a lot of errors. was sometimes better. Family Search does not have the household structure search tool.’s index keeps improving because they let users submit corrections. I have still found a lot of errors in some of their Census searches, including the NY State Census records.

Do you have an address at a point in time? You may know an address from an earlier or later Census. You may have an address from a birth or marriage certificate.

Go to and use his Enumeration District finder for the missing Census and then browse through the images looking for that address. This is a slow and painful way to go. But, it sometimes succeeds when all other strategies fail. Each ED may have 30 – 80 images. My eyes hurt when I do this. You will want to have a very fast internet connection and a very clear, large, sharp monitor.

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