Where to Find Free Online and Offline U.S. Census Records

Bureau of the Census Worker in 1940
U.S. Census records are critical in tracing families through the years. From 1790 through 1840 census records provide evidence of where the head of the household lived, with notations of the sex and approximate ages of others living in the same household. Starting with the 1850 enumeration, every person is listed by name, and additional information was collected that genealogists now find invaluable in tracing their family trees.

Microfilmed Census Records are Available at Public Libraries

Before so many census records were digitized, they were microfilmed. Most major (and many smaller) public libraries still have these microfilms, which may be consulted by patrons. Some of these microfilms are easier to read than digitized records, and may be useful in deciphering difficult entries.

Transcriptions of Census Data Can Help with Unclear Records

Again, before the advent of digitization, genealogists often read the microfilms and typed up pertinent information to be published in books, or later, placed online. Rootsweb.com has thousands of pages of typed transcripts placed there by volunteers working in their own communities. In addition to rootsweb, many county historical societies transcribed the records for their own counties – these transcriptions were often published in book form, and many are also posted on websites.

While transcriptions do not show the original images, the indexes are useful finding aids. Because the volunteers who transcribed these records often lived in the community whose records they worked on, the indexing may be more accurate than those found in commercial products.

Online Census Data at HeritageQuest and Ancestry.com

The online digitized census records available from HeritageQuest and Ancestry.com are available to the public for free at many public libraries. HeritageQuest can often be accessed from home by holders of a library card. Note that the indexing was done separately, so that results may be different between the two. Many hard-to-read entries can be interpreted in several ways, so it’s a good idea to check both if you don’t find what you’re looking for in one.

Family Search Library Access to U.S. Census Records

In addition to public libraries, Ancestry.com is offered free of charge to patrons at the Family Search Library in Salt Lake City, and at many of the regional Family Search centers. To find a local center, consult the Family Search Centers page or call your local Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Another option for finding census records from home is to use the newer updated search page at Family Search. Census records have been transcribed, but many of these records have also been digitized and are easily accessible. The project is on-going, with more digitized records being added frequently.

All Census Records are Not the Same

When genealogists talk about census records, it’s easy to assume that they’re all alike. However, each census consisted of more than one copy. The enumerator carried the original as he traveled from house to house, recording the information. Then he had to make one or two copies by hand. The original went to federal authorities, while the copies were sent to local or state offices.

Naturally, with this much hand copying, mistakes and variations were introduced. Generally, the census records microfilmed by the National Archives were the “originals” sent to the census bureau, but sometimes copies, rather than originals, were sent in by the enumerators.

Microfilming has been done more than once, as was done by the National Archives for the 1850, 1860, and 1870 censuses. The second filming was done to improve readability, but on some of the pages, the newer version is actually clearer. In addition, there are other anomalies: St. Louis, Mo, for example, was enumerated twice in 1880, and both versions have been filmed.

Which Copy of the Census Should You Use?

While having all of these copies and versions may be confusing, it can be extremely useful to compare them. If a critical page is too dark to read, or the handwriting is unclear, search for another microfilm, digital copy, or transcription. Remember, too, that indexing and transcribing is an art – each person sees something different. Just because you can’t find an ancestor on the first census record you consult, don’t stop looking. That elusive family may just be there after all – all you have to do is find the right version of the census.

Further Reading:

Census Records, National Archives

FamilySearch website

Hinckley, Kathleen W. Your Guide to the Federal Census. Betterway Books, 2002