Searching the U.S. Census in One Step
Frequently Asked Questions

Stephen P. Morse , San Francisco

1. What census years does this cover?

All of the census years for which ancestry.com has a searchable name index.  That includes every decade year from 1790 to 1930 with the exception of 1890.  The 1890 census was lost in a fire.  The census records after 1930 have not yet been made public.
 

2. Why do I need to log on to ancestry.com before I can use your search form?

I do not have a searchable database for the census on my website.  But ancestry.com has such a database and they have a search engine that can search for people in that database.  They make this available on a subscription basis.  All my search form does is direct you to the ancesty.com search engine.  So you'll need to log on at the ancestry.com site in order to be able to use their search engine.
 

3. How do I use your search form if I am at a library (or at NARA) that has a subscription to ancestry.com?

If you are at such a library, you never explicitly log on to ancestry.com.  Instead you get to ancestry.com by going through a sequence of webpages, and once there you are automatically logged on.  Your librarian will show you how to do this.  After you've done this once, you will be able to use my search form.
 

4. What are the advantages of your one-step search form over the search form on the ancestry.com website
 
ancestry.com search form one-step search form
any year You use a separate form for each census year.  (There is also a single form that searches all census years, but it doesn't offer as many search options as the ones for the individual years.) You can search in any census from the same form simply by selecting the census year at the top of the page
wildcard searches You need to use what is known as regular expressions consisting of cryptic characters such as * and ?.  And if you don't know what regular expressions are, you certainly don't want to use them. You check off whether you want an exact match with your name or all matches that start with your name.  This is not as flexible as using regular expressions, but it is much simpler to understand.
minimum number of character If you are doing a wildcard search, such as finding all matches that start with the name you supply, you must supply at least three characters.  You cannot for example find all names that start with "Sm" There is no mininum number of characters required.  You can find all names that start with "S" if you desire.  [This is currently not working.]
middle initial Form does not allow you to explicitly specify a middle initial to be used in the search. Form contains a field in which you can enter the middle initial.
relationship You cannot search for people having a specified relationship to the head of the household. Form contains a field allowing you to specify the relationship to the head of the household.  For example, you can search for all people who were wives, or sons, etc.
county name If you want to search in a specific county, you must type in the county name and spell it correctly (or incorrectly if it is misspelled in the ancestry.com database).  You might not know the county name or how to spell it.  Or you might think you know the county name and enter "Brooklyn" when the county is actually "Kings". If you want to search in a specific county in 1930, you select the county from a drop-down list of all counties in the state you have already selected.  For the other years you need to type in the county name.
microfilm roll / enumeration district You cannot restrict your search to a specific microfilm roll or enumeration district. You can restrict your search to a specific microfilm roll or portion thereof.  Or you can restrict your search to a specific enumeration district or portion thereof.
starting record You must always start your search from the beginning of the database. You can start your search from any position in the database that you desire.  That means you can do part of your search on one day, record the record number of the last match that you found, and restart the search from that record at some later time.
typewritten listing of a census page Not possible to obtain this. You can obtain this.  See question 5.
finding additional family members once one person in family is found. Often requires going to the microfilm image (which are slow to load) and then reading the names (which are handwritten). Can be done by doing a search using the family name and the ED and page already found for the first family member.

5. Can I get a typewritten listing of a census page?

You can't do that with the ancestry website directly but you can do it from my search form.  Just enter the state, the ED, the page number, and nothing more.  Do the search and you'll obtained a typed-up listing of all people on that page.

This is useful when you already have the census page but are unable to find someone on that page by doing a search by name.  So obviously the name was not typed in the way you thought it should be.  By obtaining the typed listing, you can see how the transcribers thought it should be spelled.
 

6. Can you modify your search form so that it allows me to enter a range of ages?

Unfortunately not.  This feature does not appear to be supported by the ancestry.com search engine.
 

7. Why for 1930 does a number appear for the ED when I select a county?

In the 1930 census, the ED consisted of two numbers separated by a dash.  The number preceding the dash designates the county and the one following the dash identifies the subdivision within the county.  So when you select a county from the county drop-down list, the county number is prefilled into the first part of the ED for you.

Note that although the 1930 census records consistently use this double-number notation for EDs, the ancestry.com website gives the second part of the ED only -- in other words they do not list the county designation.  Furthermore, the other census years do not use the county designation at all.  In those cases, just ignore the portion preceding the dash.
 

8. How can I print out the results of my search?  Your display doesn't have any menu so I can't do File-Print.

Although there is no menu, there is a toolbar at the top of the page.  That toolbar contains a print icon.
 

9. What is the relationship between the page number and the image number?

The page number appears in the upper right corner of each census page.  For certain years, each page has an A part and a B part, so there are two microfilm images per page.  The image number for page 1A is 1, for page 1B is 2, for page 2A is 3, etc.  To obtain the image number of a B page, you simply double the page number.  For an A page you double the page number and subtract 1.
 

10. Can I search on birthplace for any member of a household?

Apparently not.  From the samples I've looked at, it appears as though immediately family members of the head of household do not have their birthplace entered in the database.  So if you search for a "wife" and you enter a birthplace for her, you will not get a hit.  Therefore do not enter a birthplace for immediate family members (wife, son, daughter) of the head of household.  However you can use birthplace for other relationships, such as "lodger", "boarder", or even "cousin".  I have no idea where they drew the line as to which relationships get a birthplace and which do not.  (One user thought that they based it on whether or not the person had the same last name as the head of household, and that seems consistent with what I've observed.)
 

11. Can I search on any number of characters at the beginning of a name?

In theory yes.  But I have observed some anomolies and have not yet figured out under what circumstances they occur.  For example, searching in 1930 for:

first name is: Morris
last name is: Mastinsky
will give one hit.  Changing the last name field to "starts with: Masti" will give four hits and Morris Mastinsky is one of them.  But "last name starts with Mast" gives 24 hits and Morris Mastinsky is not one of them.

I have been informed of other examples that give similar results.  If anyone is able to figure out the pattern, please let me know.

Second thoughts:  Perhaps someone at ancestry.com has read this question, because now it seems to be working better.  Searching for first name equals Morris and last name starts with Mast now correctly gives 32 hits and Morris Mastinsky is among them.
 

12. Do I have to enter the page number as 15-A or 15A?

That depends on how it was typed in when the person was entered into the database.  The most common is 15A, but there are occurences of the other.  And if you don't enter it the same way as it appears in the database, you won't get a match.  So if you are interested in a specific page, then you'll need try both.

Fortunately you won't have to try 15 A.  That is equivalent to 15-A as far as the search engine is concerend.
 

13. What format do I use when I enter an age that consists of months instead of or in addition to years?

There are various formats that you can use, and they are all considered to be equivalent.  That is, if you use one of these formats and the age is entered in the database in one of the other formats, you will still get a hit.  As an example, all of the following are equivalent for 5 months:

5/12
5.12
5 12
and the following are all equivalent for 1 year and 5 months:
1 5/12
1 5.12
1 5 12
Furthermore, entering simply 1 would find matches for anyone who is exactly 1 year as well as anyone who is 1 year and any number of months.
 

14. << Question removed --- no longer applicable >>
 

15. Why do I find people of assorted ages when I search for someone who is age 5?

This is a consequence of question 13.  If the person has been entered into the ancestry.com database as 1 5/12, you will get a match when searching for age 1 as well as age 5 and age 12.  Of course that's a glitch, but the error is in the ancestry.com search engine and there is nothing that I can do to circumvent it.

Basically, for children under the age of 5 their ages have been entered in the database as "x y/z" where 0<=x<5, 0<y<13, and z=12.  When you enter an age such as 5 in the age field of the form, you will get as matches all people having an x, y, or z equal to 5. So of course there will be a lot of false hits for age 12 in particular because it is always the denominator of the fraction.  Furthermore, children under the age of 1 year are entered as "y/z" with the x being completely omited.  That means that if you search for age 0, you will not find all children under the age of 1 year but you will find people under the age of one month (entered as "0/12").
 

16. How do I save (and eventually print) the census pages that I find on Ancestry.com?

If you are looking in the 1930 census, it's fairly easy.  Here are the steps to take, depending on the browser you are using:

Netscape (any flavor):  Click on the save or print icons at the right of the census image.  That will open up a new window containing the entire image (not just a portion of it) and now you can save and/or print that image using the browser's SAVE-AS or PRINT command.  These commands can be accessed  either by going to the FILE menu or by right-clicking on the image.  The format you will be saving it in is JPEG

Microsoft (any flavor I think):  You could use the same method as described for the Netscape browser.  But a preferable way is to click on the "Switch to Advanced Viewer" link above the census image.  This will install the MrSid plugin.  Now when you click on the save or print icons at the right of the census image, you will be doing the save or print directly rather than have to then use the browser commands to save or print.  The format you will be saving it in is JPEG.

[Second Thoughts: The above instructions now apply to all the census years, not just 1930.  So the instructions given below for earlier census years no longer apply.  They are being kept here just to show you what life used to be like in the old days.]

If you are looking at an earlier census, it's a bit more complicated.  Below are the instructions that I follow each time I want to do save the image.  This works only on the IE browser -- the Netscape browser does not have a MrSid plugin.  (Do not attempt to install a MrSid plugin on a Netscape browser -- it will not work and will actually make matters worse.)

Install the MrSid Geoviewer on your computer if you haven't done so already.  You can get this from lizardtech.com

[Second thoughts: they have changed the name of the program -- it is now called GeoExpressView]

Using the browser, get to the census image and let the browser install the MrSid plugin when you are asked to do so.  (Do not confuse the MrSid plugin with the MrSid Geoviewer that you installed in the preceding step -- the plugin is an extension of the browser whereas the viewer is a stand-alone program.)

Switch the MrSid plugin to "Detail Mode" (otherwise you can't save as a .sid file in the next step)

Right click on the image and save it as a .sid file.

Start the MrSid Geoviewer [or GeoExpressView] and open the .sid file that you've just saved.  (You might be able to simply double-click on the saved .sid file but in some configureations that might bring it up in the browser instead of the MrSid Geoviewer.  Try it, and if it brings up the viewer, us that method instead.)

Export the image as a TIFF file as follows:

Select EXPORT from the FILE menu
Click on the "redefine-export-area" button and adjust the area to be the entire image
Click on the "export-to" button to set the name of the file that you want the output to go to
Click the "go" button to save as a .tif file
Go to your favorite photo-editing program, open the TIFF file and resave it as a JPEG.

-- Steve Morse