If you could have a government-sponsored genealogy program to produce a family group sheet for every family in the country and have it updated every 10 years, what would you call it? . . . A CENSUS!

Censuses - An Indispensible Resource for Family History

Censuses have been around since the earliest recorded history, especially by centralized governments all over the world. For example:
The Old Testament book of Numbers gets its name from a census that was made when the pyramids were new ...
In the New Testament, the journey of Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem was for a Roman census related to taxation ...
In the days of William the Conqueror, the Domesday Book was a detailed census of the nobles and their holdings, for the purpose of taxation ...
Whenever governments wanted to know who is available to form an army or to pay taxes, it was time for another census ...

In more modern times, most of the Western world has national censuses on a regular basis. In English-speaking countries they usually take place every 10 years. In addition, special censuses sometimes take place on a more local level, as needs arise. In Scandanavia, censuses are usually every 5 years.

In their simplest form, censuses are simply a head-count, which is useless for genealogy research. By the early 1800s censuses gave the name and location of the head of each household and the number of males and females. This was the usual form of census until about the 1840s. But some censuses are "nominal" as well as "numerical", meaning that they record names as well as numbers. The best ones record additional information such as ages, relationships, birthplaces, religions, and occupations.

Censuses starting about 1850 have some major advantages where genealogy is concerned:
1. Unlike some official records, you didn't have to own property or be in jail to be counted.
2. Families are grouped together, and sometimes include members of the extended family living in the same household or nearby.
3. Ages are included. (1901 census of Canada gives an exact date of birth.)
4. Place of birth is often included in censuses.
5. They have been preserved intact in most cases, whereas certificates and family Bibles seldom survive.
6. They allow us to follow a family over a long period of time, as children are born, and either die young, or grow to leave the family home. Errors in one census can usually be noticed when comparing with earlier and later censuses.

However, the most recent censuses have not been released to protect the privacy of living people.


It has been said "One census is worth a bus-load of family Bibles" ... but family Bibles do a much better job of keeping track of marriages and the families of married female children!

If we accept the premise that "undocumented genealogy is mythology", then we need to document our research. Censuses are an excellent resource for documenting our genealogy. While a census entry can't provide all of the information that you could place in a Family Group Sheet, it will provide the basics.

Canadian Censuses on Microfilm

The Provincial Archives of Alberta are a source for all the national censuses of Canada on microfilm. So whether you need to find a family living in Edwardsburgh township, Grenville county, Ontario in 1851 or in Yellowknife, Yukon in 1891, you will find the censuses available for free at the Provincial Archives. All it will cost you is your time and travel. To use the census microfilms, you need to know where the family lived.

However, where censuses are available online you can search them a million times faster. This means that you don't need to know exactly where the family was living to do an online search. Online you can search the 5.5 million names on the 1901 Canada Census in a minute or two. Regardless where the people you are looking for lived, if you have some basic information, you will quickly find them.

Also ... the geographical information from the online censuses will make it easier to find the families on the census microfilms for the censuses that are not online. For example, if the family lived in Glenelg Township, Grey County, Ontario in the 1881 and 1901 censuses online, where would you look for them in the 1891 census microfilms?

Estimating Year of Birth from Age on the Canadian Census

Canadian Census Enumeration Dates
The 1851 census was taken on 12 January 1852. The age question asked was for "next birthday".
Other census dates were as follows:
14 Aug 1861 "age next birthday"
02 Apr 1871 "age next birthday"
04 Apr 1881 "age last birthday"
06 Apr 1891 "age last birthday"
31 Mar 1901 "age last birthday"
24 Jun 1906 "age last birthday"
01 Jun 1911 "age last birthday"
When you are estimating the year of birth from a Canadian census, you can't be 100% sure what year they were born, since the census was never on January 1st. The best estimates in the various censuses are:

1851 (1852 - age)
1861 (1861 - age)
1871 (1871 - age)
1881 (1880 - age)
1891 (1890 - age)
1901 (1900 - age)
1906 (1905 - age or 1906 - age) You have a 50% chance on this one!
1911 (1910 - age)

But remember that if the age is given as 20 and the census enumeration date was 4 April 1881 and you use the formula (1880 - 20 = 1860), your calculation will be too high by one year if the person was born between 1 Jan and 4 April, because they have already had their birthday for that year. Still, there is over a 70% chance that you are correct. In contrast, the formula (1881 - age) would be wrong over 70% of the time. And remember that ages given on censuses should be treated as approximations in any case.

Searching Census Records

When searching censuses, you are usually not looking for an individual. You are looking for a family, who can be identified by the names of the parents and the names and birth order of the children. The family is often part of a larger group of people who may have migrated as a group. The families in the group will have helped each other. They will probably also have inter-married. If you have trouble following your Smith family, try following their associates who have less common names such as Sherwood. This is also a useful strategy if you think the name has been misinterpreted by those who have indexed the census records. It may be useful to search through a different transcriptions of the same census if you can't find people where you expect them to be. Maybe the handwriting was poor. In one transcription, the name may appear as Teale and in another transcription it appears as Seale. If you are looking for Teale in the index, Seale isn't even on your radar screen! Most online census transcriptions make it easy to view the families next door. You might want to check the first few families in each direction from the Sherwoods to see if you can find your Smiths.

Canadian Censuses Online

All Canadian Censuses (1851-1916) are available online for free on http://ancestry.com at any Family History Center.

1911 Census of Canada has been indexed at the free site http://automatedgenealogy.com You can view and save scanned images of the original census pages. 

1906 Special Census of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta is transcribed by http://automatedgenealogy.com with census images.
Example on Automated Genealogy site: Select 1906 Census and search for James Buchanan aged 41. Next door is his sister's family, the Ashes. Notice that Earnest J. has been incorrectly transcribed as Eamell J. We can view the actual census page to see if there are other errors.

1901 Census of Canada on the Automated Genealogy site is a wonderful resource. It is easy to search in various ways and you can view the original census page to verify the information. http://automatedgenealogy.com
It is set up much like the 1906 transcription but has more tools available. (Merge spelling variations of the surname into your search list.) The exact dates of birth given can help you to make a positive identification and add important information. The exact date of birth is usually accurate, especially the day and month.
Example: Andrew Peter Rasmussen living in Manitoba. The information we have about him is quite limited. His tombstone in Carberry, Manitoba says Andrew Peter Rasmussen 09 DEC 1859 - 17 APR 1913. Why can't we find him in the IGI? 
We look for Rasmussens living in Manitoba in 1901.
We merge the alternative spellings into the search list. This is what we find:
3 29 25 Rasmussen A P M Head M Dec 9 1860 41
3 30 25 Rasmussen Sofoe F Wife M Aug 5 1868 33
3 31 25 Rasmussen Vinna M F Daughter S Dec 4 1894 7
Source Information: 1901 Census of Canada
Subdistrict: Cypress (North/Nord), MACDONALD, MANITOBA
District Number: 8 Subdistrict Number: b-7 Archives Microfilm: T-6433
When we click the link to the image of the census page and resize it, this is what we see: We select AP Rasmussen, and notice that the census is off by exactly one year on his date of birth given in the tombstone.

Ah! He was born in Denmark and we were looking in the IGI for North America! He came to Canada in 1881 and became a Canadian Citizen or British Subject in 1887. His wife "Sofie" was born in Denmark Aug 5 1868 and came to Canada in 1888 and is still a Danish citizen in 1901. This example is typical of the censuses at

1891 Census of Canada is now available at Collections Canada for free. You can search it and view a scanned image of the original page. http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/databases/census-1891/index-e.html

1880/1881 Censuses of USA/Canada/Great Britain on FamilySearch takes us back one more generation in the case of people who were adults in 1901. https://familysearch.org
This site allows useful searching strategies like a "given name" search if you can't find the surname. It also uses technology that finds common variants of names. You don't have to merge the alternate spellings, as it is already done for you in most cases. We won't find AP Rasmussen there, because he didn't arrive from Denmark until July 1881, after the census was completed.
Example: Peter and Harriet Ducklow were living in Milverton, Ontario but don't appear in the census. So we change our strategy, and search for all "Harriet"s with head of house as "Peter", who were living in Milverton, Perth North, Ontario. We find them under the name DENCLAN when their name was really DUCKLOW. Obviously the spelling or handwriting was very poor. But at least we found them. (On my main lines I like to follow them through all of the censuses, and keep a copy of the census records in the Notes for the head of household.)

Index to the 1871 Canada Census for Ontario http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/databases/1871-ontario/001016-100.01-e.php
This has the names of heads of households and strays only. A stray is someone in the household who has a different surname than the head of the household. Some strays are visitors or lodgers who happen to be in the home when enumeration takes place. Other strays are step-children, or in-laws.
Example: John Buchanan in Perth North

1871 and 1861 Census of Canada index (no images) is available for free from FamilySearch. Specify the province, and you will have a better chance of finding the person you are looking for. The format offered is less useful than on http://ancestry.com

1851/1852 Census Images for Canada East (Quebec), Canada West (Ontario), New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. There is no index of names, so to use them you have to know the exact location. http://www.collectionscanada.ca/archivianet/1851/001005-100.02-e.html
An indexed version is available on
Automated Genealogy has also started indexing the 1851/1852 census. http://automatedgenealogy.com

Census Finder another free site, somewhat hit-or-miss. http://www.censusfinder.com/ This site has links to censuses for US, UK, Canada. Occasionally you will find free links there to censuses that are not listed on other free websites.

Canada GenWeb

Ontario GenWeb Census Project http://www.rootsweb.com/~ongenpro/census/
Normally only the 1881, 1901, 1906 and 1911 censuses of Canada are available online, but the GenWeb project has extracted additional censuses in some areas of Ontario.
Example: Buchanan, John, Perth County, Elma Township This brings up John's family in the 1861 census. Good info!

Some censuses have "Schedules" attached at the back that are a goldmine of additional family information: type of house, family income, livestock owned, acres of land owned and how it is being used (grain, pasture, woodland, etc.) This is wonderful family history information!

On my main family lines, I like to follow the family across the censuses. e.g. the family of James Lidgett and Mary Ann Tyson in Lincolnshire.

Name 1861 1871 1881 1891 1901
James Lidgett born Ludford Parva, Lincoln 1845 1845 1845 1845 1845
Mary A Lidgett born Ludford Magma, Lincoln   1846 1845 1846 1846
Edith Lidgett born Ludford Magma, Lincoln   1869 1869    
James LIDGITT born Ludford, Lincoln     1872    
Sarah J. LIDGITT born Ludford, Lincoln     1875    
Charles W. LIDGITT born Ludford, Lincoln     1876 1875  
Mary Ann LIDGITT born Ludford, Lincoln     1878 1878  
George H. LIDGITT born Ludford, Lincoln     1880 1880  
Thomas LIDGITT born Ludford, Lincoln     1881 1882  
Fred Lidgett born Ludford Magma, Lincoln       1884 1884
Earnest Lidgett born Sixhills, Lincoln       1886 1886
Agnes Lidgett born Sixhills, Lincoln       1888 1888
Auther Lidgett born Benniworth, Lincoln       1890 1891

... or using the ages as given on the censuses, as in the case of this family ...

The family of John Buchanan and Isabella Watson
  1861 1871 1881 1891 1901
John 28 40 53 60 71
Isabella 25 33 45 54 64
Elizabeth 4 14 +    
Jane 2 12 21 30 41
Robert John   10 20 28 39
James George   8 17 27 37
Margaret   4 14 24 34
Mary   2 12 22 32
William Andrew     6 16 26
Anne Elizabeth     5 14 24
John Charles     2 +  

You will notice that the members of this family didn't necessarily get 10 years older every 10 years.


ANCESTRY.COM is the omnipresent commercial genealogy company. http://www.ancestry.com accessible for free in Family History Centers. 
The census records at Ancestry.com may be the best in the world for England & Wales & Scotland, USA, and Canada!
It is especially good for Ontario, where the old registration documents of Births, Marriages and Deaths are now fully viewable (not just indexed). The Drouin database for Quebec is also accessible at Ancestry.ca. 

It seemed to me that searches for surnames on Ancestry.com have to spelled exactly as they appear on the census page. I couldn't find the family of Richard Martin of Ludgvan, Cornwall ... until someone on GenForum said they found this family listed under the name Martins. What a difference an "s" makes! Also "Martyn" and other variant spellings may not be found without doing extra searches. But more recently I have discovered the power of * on Ancestry.com. You can usually find all of the surname variants if you use the first few letters (a minimum of 3) followed by an asterisk. So Mart* would find all of the Martin, Martins, Martens, Martyn, and Martyns families. It would also find Martineau and all other names beginning with "Mart".

Other Commercial Genealogical Websites: There are a multitude of commercial genealogy companies. Some are very useful, others are not. Let the buyer beware! My friend paid $300 for a subscription to Genealogy.com, and found nothing useful. But I have found Genealogy.com's free GenForum to be helpful. Personally, I have found Ancestry.com to be the most useful commercial site for my purposes. Some friends have found Scotland's People to be the most useful, because of their Scottish research. In any case, I suggest that you don't pay for a commercial service before you check it out. The same advice applies to purchasing censuses or other genealogy resources on CD-ROM. Caveat Emptor!

Great Britain 

1841, 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891, 1901 and 1911 Censuses of Englands and Wales are available at Ancestry.com (as mentioned above) http://www.ancestry.com and http://www.ancestry.co.uk. So are these censuses for Scotland.  These are free at a Family History Center.

These censuses are also available at FindMyPast.com - which is also accessible for free at Family History Centers.

1881 Census of England and Wales (see http://familysearch.org above) This offers the special searching features found on familysearch.org such as a first name search.
Example: Thomas Ing, London

Census Finder referred to above http://www.censusfinder.com/

United States

Censuses of the USA began in 1790, but these early censuses listed only the head of household and the number of residents. Starting in 1850, the US Census included the names of all people. The 1890 census was destroyed when the building it was stored in caught fire. The 1930 US Census is the most recently released census.

HeritageQuest - http://www.heritagequestonline.com/ Some public libraries subscribe to this service. It is especially useful for American censuses and other American genealogy. It is available by subscription, or free at a Family History Center.

Ancestry.com - http://ancestry.com has all of the available US censuses, plus lots of other US genealogy resources. It is probably the most comprehensive source of US genealogy data at the present time.  It is available by subscription, or free at a Family History Center.

1880 Census of the United States (free at http://familysearch.org) This offers the special searching features found on familysearch.org such as a first name search.

Census finder for US, UK, Canada, Native Americans, and others http://www.censusfinder.com/

Free census searches online http://www.census-online.com/links/

Geography Problems

Online Maps can be vital to narrowing-down searches by knowing the names of surrounding places, and getting the current spellings of place names.
http://www.multimap.com/ MapQuest http://www.mapquest.com/ StreetMap http://streetmap.co.uk/ GoogleMaps http://maps.google.co.uk/   http://maps.google.com/
Example: In two censuses George Hippard says he was born at Litton, Somerset, England but in the 1881 census he says he was born at East Harptree, Somerset, England. All the other information on the censuses agrees. Are these in the same area? Yes, they are! The farm was probably located between these villages.

A Personal Note: I can understand the dilemma of place names when you live in a rural area. While living in my present house, I had a Barrhead mailing address, an Onoway telephone number, and the closest town was Alberta Beach. When people asked where I lived, I wasn't always consistent. I can't blame George Hippard if sometimes said East Harptree and sometimes Litton. So, the locality is sometimes more significant than the place name.

Remember too, that some place names have changed over time, and even the boundaries of nations, counties and parishes can change. Galicia was part of Poland, then Austria, and then Ukraine, all within the lifetime of some of the people living there. Try to find a map of the area as it was at the time your ancestors lived there. It may simplify your research.

Métis Records - Since the western Canada Métis often lived in "unorganized" areas they were sometimes missed by the national censuses. If you come across this problem in your research, check the Métis Scrip Records http://www.collectionscanada.ca/archivianet/02010507_e.html
They are great for information on Canadian Métis families in the 1800s.
Eliza Auger

Census Problems

Recording errors

Sometimes what the census taker recorded was not what the informant said:

[Editor's note: The opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and are not necessarily those of the editor or of RootsWeb.com].
Translating Names in Texas
By Barbara Beadles

I was looking recently at the 1920 Wood County, Texas census for the household of William CREELMAN. I knew that my grandparents were married there in 1918 and that my grandmother already had a small son from a previous marriage who was born in 1915 His name was "R. L."

I asked my grandmother years ago what "R. L." stood for and she told me that she had in mind when she named him, Russell Linny, but said his real name was simply "R. L." That's the only name he ever went by.

When I found the family on the 1920 census, I was surprised to see that the only child listed there was the right age, but was named Sorrell. I finally realized that the census taker had asked her the child's name and she had replied, "It's R. L." -- but the census taker heard only "Sorrell."

* * *
Her Name Was -- What?
By Thom Faircloth, president of the Germanna Foundation

Katherine Reab's article on thinking in accents when searching census records reminds me of the time I found my Aunt "Johnnie" in the census in South Georgia in the 1920s. She is listed as Johnnie Analyzer Gay.

This one had me stumped until I asked my 94-year-old great-aunt Esther BLIZZARD about it. She said her name was Johnnie Anna Eliza. But with the south Georgia accent and the habit of replacing the trailing letter "a" with an "er" sound, it was spoken as one word -- "analyzer."

Funny mystery solved."

Transcription errors

Even if the enumerator recorded the information correctly, if you are working from a transcription, a new source of errors occurs. The transcriber may not have read the record correctly. The transcriber has probably done his or her best effort, but depending upon the handwriting and the condition of the original page, the task may be a very difficult one. Let's compare these two census records of my 2g-aunt's family, the Shipgoods.

1871 England Census from ancestry.com
Name Estimated Birth Year Birthplace Relationship Civil Parish or Township County/Island
William Phipgood abt 1841 Essex, England Head St Luke London [Carman]
Mary Phipgood abt 1847 Battersea, Surrey, England Wife St Luke London
Elizabeth Phipgood abt 1867 St Luke, Middlesex, England Daughter St Luke London
Sarah Phipgood abt 1870 St Luke, Middlesex, England Daughter St Luke London

1881 British Census from familysearch.org
Name Relation Marital Status Gender Age Birthplace Occupation
William SHIPGOOD Head M Male 40 Essex, England Builders Carman
Mary A. SHIPGOOD Wife M Female 35 Battersea, Surrey, England
Elizabeth SHIPGOOD Daur Female 14 St Lukes, Middlesex, England Scholar
Martha E. SHIPGOOD Daur Female 9 St Lukes, Middlesex, England Scholar
Mary A.R. SHIPGOOD Daur Female 6 St Lukes, Middlesex, England Scholar
John T. SHIPGOOD Son Male 2 Southwark, Surrey, England
Alice J. SHIPGOOD Daur Female 2 m Southwark, Surrey, England
Source Information: Dwelling 5 Gray St Census Place Southwark St George Martyr, Surrey, England
Family History Library Film 1341120 Public Records Office Reference RG11 Piece / Folio 0531 / 33 Page Number 45

You will face challenges like this as you use census transcriptions. Fortunately, more and more online transcriptions have links to a photograph of the actual census document, making it easy to verify transcription errors.

Missed by Enumerators

In Canada and the USA this sometimes happened in "unorganized territory" or other areas difficult to find. e.g. Pioneer "squatters" living on government land that had not yet been organized for formal settlement. Now it most frequently happens when families are away from home on census day.

Failed to Find Them?

Search on variant spellings. In the 1880/1881 censuses on FamilySearch.org try a first-name search. On the microfilm, search adjacent areas.

Using Census Data You Have Found

Relax for a bit and enjoy your success, then press forward!

The Census Taker - A Poem

It was the first day of census, and all through the land;
The pollster was ready ... a black book in hand.
He mounted his horse for a long dusty ride;
His book and some quills were tucked close by his side.
A long winding ride down a road barely there;
Toward the smell of fresh bread wafting up through the air.

The woman was tired, with lines on her face;
And wisps of brown hair she tucked back into place.
She gave him some water ... as they sat at the table;
And she answered his questions ... the best she was able.
He asked of her children... Yes, she had quite a few;
The oldest was twenty, the youngest not two.

She held up a toddler with cheeks round and red;
His sister, she whispered, was napping in bed.
She noted each person who lived there with pride;
And she felt the faint stirrings of the wee one inside.
He noted the sex, the name, the age...
The marks from the quill soon filled up the page.

At the number of children, she nodded her head;
He saw her lips quiver for the three that were dead.
The places of birth she "never forgot";
Was it Kansas? or Utah? or Oregon ... or not?
They came from Scotland, of that she was clear;
But she wasn't quite sure just how long they'd been here.

They spoke of employment, of schooling and such;
They could read some and write some ... though really not much.
When his questions were answered, his job there was done.
So he mounted his horse and he rode toward the sun.
We can almost imagine his voice loud and clear.
"May God bless you all for another ten years."

Now picture a time warp ... it's now you and me;
As we search for the people on our family tree.
We squint at the census and scroll down so slow;
As we search for that entry from long, long ago.
Could they only imagine on that long ago day;
That the entries they made would affect us this way?

If they knew, would they wonder at the yearning we feel;
And the searching that makes them so increasingly real?
We can hear if we listen, the words they impart;
Through their blood in our veins and their voice in our heart.

Author: Darlene Stevens, Spokane, WA
Darlene's poem was published several years ago in the Genealogy Bulletin No. 39 page 28.

Handy little genealogical references:
12 Research Techniques That Can Produce Results

Mary Tollstrup's Genealogy Treasures (formerly Mary's Lethbridge FHC site) http://www.telusplanet.net/public/mtoll/ Lots of census links, some are free.

Bill's Computer Tips ComputerTips

I wish you joy and success in your research.

Bill Buchanan

If you have questions or comments send me an email message bill.buchanan@excite.com

The old gent was sitting peacefully in his favorite rocking chair on his front porch. He noticed a young man approach with pad and pencil in hand. "What are you selling son?"
"I'm not selling anything. I'm a census taker" said the young man.
"A what?"
"A census taker sir. We're trying to find out how many people live in Canada."
"Well y'er wastin y'er time with me" replied the old gent "I have no idea".

Seen on a friend's t-shirt: "Old genealogists never die, they just lose their census."