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Using the Census Records of FamilySearch.org

Updated on March 8, 2017

Getting Back into Genealogy with the Basics

While Ancestry.com and other paid genealogy sites are wonderful and have lots and lots of information, many of us just cannot afford to pay for our beginning research. Costs puts a lot of potential researchers off getting started, but never fear, there are free sites out there.

One of the best free genealogy sites for family as well as professional researchers is FamilySearch.org provide free by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, more commonly known as “The Mormons.”

While I am a member of the Church and I have been using FamilySearch since it came out, I am in no way an expert on the FamilySearch program. I took several years off from doing genealogy to take care of family. And with all the upgrades to the program I am going to have to learn it all over again. But I will detail and share as I go all the goodies I find that you and I both can benefit from.

Creating a FamilySearch Account

To start, go to FamilySearch.org (note: org, not com.) The first thing you will need to do is create an account with a user name and a password. If you are a member of The Church, you will need your membership number and some other membership information. If you are not a member of the Church, you can still create an account and use most parts of the FamilySearch program. Some parts are restricted for use only for and by members. These parts are only important to members of The Church and pertain to their membership and really have no effect on your genealogy research.

Go to the FamilySearch.org website and just follow the instructions:

Create an account by following the detailed instructions for putting in your name, address, and your membership information if you are a member. They will also ask you to create a user name and a password. You will use these to sign in each time. That is all it is to it. No credit card needed.

Documenting Your Research

If you are a beginner or have not yet documented your beginning information, now is the time to go back and document the easiest part of doing genealogy: Using Online Census Records.

Several different types of census records are available online through FamilySearch.org, but the first ones we want to start with are Population Census from 1940 back to 1850. The only one missing is the 1890 which mostly was burned in a fire. Only a few counties remain. But you will want to start with the 1940, which is the one closest to you. If you or your parents or grandparents were born in 1940 makes even better as you can relate to that year better. (PS: the 1950 will be coming out soon. I can’t believe I will be on that census!!! Yep, I am that old.)

These census records have at least the name of each person in the household, age, and place of birth. More information in the later years, but please take this information “with a grain of salt’ as the old saying goes. People lie. They change their age, their place of birth, how many kids, even the names of the kids (some were just listed as “baby.”) And even when they intend to tell the truth, the person giving the information may not know the truth. The informant could have been a child, a visitor, an employee, or even a neighbor. And of course very few could read or write in the early census, so you will find your family names spelled a dozen different ways. Go the “phonetic” route. (Look it up) Just don't get me started on how hard it is to figure out which kid belonged to which wife! I have one case where I tracked the man from 1850 to 1900 and he had a different wife each time... and more kids with each census!

Using the Census Search Engine

It is so easy to use FamilySearch records:

After you create an account, sign in
Click on Search
Click on Records
Type in First and Last Names
Type in an approximate birth date
(if he was born 1856, type in 1850, then 1860 as search dates)
Also type in the State he was born in (or guess or leave blank)
Be sure to specify he was born in United States or other county if it applies
You can also limit the search to specific states or events

Using my own ancestor as an example, Solomon Carpenter, who was born 1829, Alabama, United States. I put in birth search dates of 1820-1830 Alabama to search only in Alabama. Later I went back and search the states of Mississippi and then separately the state of Louisiana, since I know these were the three states where he lived. I know I found him in 1860 Mississippi, 1870 Mississippi and 1910 Louisiana. He died in 1912. I have his obit. I have not found him in the 1850, 1880, or 1900 census, (1890 burned.) Yes, it is driving me crazy to not be able to find him in those other census! I also did another general search without limiting the search area to one state, just to see what turns up. And I even changed his place of birth to several different states as one of the census said he was born in Tennessee! Just to make it worse, I even tried using the state of Kentucky! Plus I tried searching under the names of the children. Still no luck.

For now, I ignored everything that was not pertaining to the “population” census as I wanted just census records on my direct ancestor. The search on my grandfather’s grandfather brought up military records as well as other records. The search also brought up any time he was listed as the father to an event (death, marriage, etc.) of a child. So ignoring all these other records will allow me to FOCUS and pick up information I may have missed before from the census records, along with clues to help me with future research. Later I will go back and search just one of the other records, focusing on what they may tell me.


My grandfather's grandfather!

Solomon Carpenter
Solomon Carpenter | Source

Reading the Clues in the Census

FamilySearch makes it easy to use the census. You can copy and paste into your computer program the transcribed information. You can even go to the census image itself and read or print or download the image. This is something I highly recommend that you do; copy the information and as well as the source. Include all the different columns. Different census ask different questions. Please pay attention to the columns! At least look at the image itself as not everything was indexed to the transcribed copy. Also look at the page or two before and the page or two after. Who did they live around? Was there other family members nearby? Was that a sister or uncle next door? How many others were from the same states? Have you ever done “cluster” research? More on that in another article.

And make sure you copy everything from the census sheet. If you copy and paste, the FamilySearch program will include the source for you. You want to make sure you can “go back” and duplicate what you did and find that entry again. Trust me on this: You will need to look at that entry again and perhaps even more than once! In fact, take time to go back to the last census and see if that other child is still in the household. Yes? No? Look at the previous few pages and the next few pages. Did you find someone, perhaps married that would fit? Make a note to check marriage records when we get to that point!

And no, don’t start in 1850 and work your down to the future. Start in 1940 with people you (or your parents) probably called grandpa and grandma and go talk to them if you can, to get the real idea of why they lived where they lived and is that the real information on the census. Ask for help from living relatives and document as you go, one year at a time. Be religious with your documentation. You will thank me later when you have to go back and look at the same information again and again.

Once you get the census information down on your direct ancestor, you can go back and search for other relatives or events. You should be finding information or clues you didn’t have before. I did and I have been working on my family lines for more than forty years!

One More Question

Are we having fun yet?

Well, let's make that two question: Are you addicted to doing genealogy yet? No? Never fear, you will be. Just give it a couple of more research trip into your ancestry!

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