Census Records

History and How to Use them

 (c) Linda Haas Davenport

Updated 2003

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 The original of this article was distributed to the on-line genealogy community in the Genealogy Record Service Newsletter in September 1998


Indexes and Finding Aids

Fortunately for us there are many indexes or other finding aids for the Federal Censuses. Almost all of the census records have been indexed in one manner or another. The government came up with a finding aid called the Soundex for the 1900, 1910 and 1920 censuses. Companies such as Ancestry.com, Genealogy.com and Heritage Quest have indexes either for sale or available on-line. The USGenWeb Census Project is working at indexing/transcribing all of the federal census records. This is a volunteer effort and access is free. The LDS has the index to the 1880 census on their site. There are other scattered indexes on the Web - use one of the large search engines to search for them. Most of the 1790-1850 censuses have been indexed and printed by Accelerated Indexing Systems (now Heritage Quest) and can be found in most genealogy libraries.

These first indexes that were compiled by Accelerated Indexing Systems used a computer. An individual abstracted the names by hand and then someone entered them into the computer. These indexes were then printed and bound into index books. Most genealogy libraries have indexes for at least their own state. The LDS in Salt Lake has all of them. Heritage Quest has purchased all of Accelerated Indexing Systems Indexes and sell them on CDs. The National Archives also indexed many of the early census records and their indexes are on microfilm. Many other individuals and companies have compiled indexes of one kind or another. Besides using the indexes found on the web check with the librarian at your local genealogical library, contact the state Historical Society and/or your local LDS family center to determine what indexes are available in your area for the census year of interest.

When using any of these printed indexes, turn first to the front of the book and carefully read the explanation of how the index is put together, what the "page number" really means and where it will be found on the census film. Always check the end of the list of the alpha letter for a given surname. The use of initials, extra spaces and commas instead of periods cause many names to be listed out of order and they are usually dropped to the end of the surname listing. Priests and nuns are often found under FATHER and SISTER as the last name or Father John may be found as "John, Father". The older the census being indexed the more likely that 1st letters of a surname will be misread. For example the old style R and K are almost impossible to tell apart and are often misinterpreted.

Although the indexes on-line and on CDs are simple to use in one way they are harder to use than the printed indexes. With printed indexes once you arrive at the right page for the alphabetically listing of your surname you can scan the whole page - often finding your ancestor even if the name is misspelled or you can scan every page for the surnames beginning with the 1st letter of your ancestor's name. With search engines you may only check for one spelling at a time. Many a family historian has come away from computerized searches thinking their ancestor was not in a given area when they actually were. For example - one census year my family (name of White) was on the census and indexed as Wright.

Indexes and the Soundex are wonderful tools to help a researcher get into the census but they cannot be relied on. As with any index it was compiled by a human being who was trying to read the same microfilm and handwriting that you are and who certainly weren't as familiar with your family name as you are.

When Social Security began in 1935 many, if not most, of the people applying for assistance could not verify their birth date even though they were qualified to draw Social Security. Births were not normally recorded prior to 1915-1920. To help solve this problem the government set up a department called the "Age Search Group". This group researched the census records to try to verify a person's age. It didn't take long to determine that some type of index was necessary.

The Census office hired the Rand Corporation to come up with an index system. The system the Rand Corporation devised was an indexing system based on the "sound" of a name not the spelling. The Census Bureau then hired hundreds of clerks under the WPA (Works Progress Administration) during WWII to index the census records using the Rand Corporations "Soundex" system. The Age Search Group's need to determine the age of a Social Security applicant caused the 1880 census to be indexed only for households with children 10 or under. A person applying for Social Security in 1935 would fall within that category. Since the only copy of the 1890 census was destroyed by fire the Age Search Group decided to index every household for the 1900 and 1920 censuses.

In looking at the 1920 Soundex Cards on Microfilm many of the cards have black streaks or marks across the tops that make it very difficult to read the top line(s). It is thought that the years of clerks thumbing through these cards left dirt and smears on the cards. Some companies are using computers to enhance the information on the top of the cards and are releasing these indexes on CDs.

It wasn't until the late 1960s that the Age Search Group undertook the indexing of the 1910 census. For whatever reason - lack of money, time or available personnel, only 21 states were indexed for 1910. This was the first index produced by the Census Bureau that was compiled using a computer. The computer index is called a "Miracode System" and doesn't differ significantly from the Soundex Code.

The Soundex systems is easy to use once you learn the rules.


A Number Represents a letter

1 = B P F V
2 = C S K G J Q X Z
3 = D T
4 = L
5 = M N
6 = R
Disregard the letters A, E, I, O, U, W, Y and H

The Soundex Coding System

Every Soundex Code consists of a letter and 3 numbers, such as S-650. The letter is always the first letter of the surname, whether it is a vowel or a consonant. Disregard the letters, a, e, i, o, u, w, y, h (see above) and assign a number to the next three consonants of the surname according to the soundex coding guide. If there are not three consonants following the initial letter, use zeros to fill out the three-digit code.

Names with Prefixes: If the surname has a prefix, such as van, Von, De, Di, or Le, code it both with and without the prefix because it might be listed under either code. The surname for example could be V-531 or D-153. Mc and Mac are not considered prefixes and should be treated as a part of the name.

Names with Double Letters: If the surname has double letters, they should be treated as one letter. Thus, in the surname Lloyd, the second L should be crossed out, in the surname Gutierrez, the second R should be crossed out.

Names with Letters Side by Side that Have the Same Number on the Soundex Guide: A surname may have different letters that are side by side and have the same number on the Soundex Coding guide. For example, PF in Pfister (1 is the number for both P and F); CKS in Jackson (2 is the number for C, K and S). These letters should be treated as one letter. Thus in the name Pfister, F should be crossed out; in the name Jackson, K and S should be crossed out.

Some Examples:

Haas = keep the H, cross out the A (a disregarded vowel), cross out the next A (not just because it's a vowel but because it is a double letter), keep the S and assign it number 2. You end up with H2, you need 3 digits, pad with zeros. Soundex code is H200

Lewallen: Keep the L, cross out the E, cross out the W, cross out the A, keep the L and assign it a 4, cross out the next L since it's a side by side letter, cross out the E and keep the N and assign it a 5. You end up with L45, pad with a zero and the Soundex code is L450.

Jackson: Keep the J, cross out the A, keep the C and assign it a 2, cross out the K and the S because they are both 2s, cross out the O, keep the N and assign it a 5. You end up with J25, pad with a zero and the Soundex code is J250.

One thing to keep in mind when you are researching the soundex index. Some soundex codes came out with very few names and they are lumped together. For example J400 to J420 might all be lumped together and sorted together by first name. Watch for these "lumped" soundex codes.

The Soundex index is set up in alphabetically by the 1st letter of the last name, then numerically by the soundex code number and then alphabetically by the first name within the numeric code.

More explanation of the Soundex indexes will be found in the information for a given census.

And here's a web site that will do all the hard work for you.


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