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Overheard in GenForum: Lost Soundex, Can I Find in Census?
by Rhonda R. McClure

Each week Rhonda answers a question from the GenForum message boards and gives her expert answer here. We'd love to hear anything you have to add. Go ahead and leave your comments on GenForum with the original message.

August 17, 2000
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: The soundex for my ancestors in the 1910 Illinois census is lost - something about an accident in filming and then originals destroyed before the accident was noted. Can I find them in the census if I know their address in Chicago? -- Kay

A: There are times when we discover that either there isn't an index to the census that we need or as in your case, that something has happened that results in our family being omitted. While we tend to panic when we think there is no index, especially when dealing with a large city, such as you are, there are ways to narrow the search effectively to a small enough section of the census that line-by-line searching is no longer a daunting task.

These suggestions work best when working with some of the more recent census records, though the principles can be applied to earlier years as well.

It is possible to find people in a big city in the census without an index.

City Directories

Because you already know the city where your ancestor was living, you have solved the biggest problem. As such you can first turn your attention to city directories to aid you in your research.

Through city directories you can get the needed information to begin to narrow down the number of enumeration districts that you will have to search through. But many are unaware of how they can access city directories.

The first place to begin such a search is at your local Family History Center. You will want to search the Family History Library Catalog. You will find many city directories available on microfiche and microfilm. Because they are alphabetized, you can first search the city directory and then begin to determine where in the city they were living.

Enumeration District Maps

There are some often-overlooked aids that can be of use to you in this situation. For the 1880, 1900, 1910 and 1920 census there are descriptions of the enumeration districts on microfilm. They are also sometimes referred to as Enumeration District Maps, though they do not actually have graphic maps as you might expect.

Instead each state is broken down by Supervisor's District and thereunder by Enumeration District. For each enumeration district there is some sort of description, followed by the county and any possible special instructions. In some cases the population for the particular ED is also included.

Available on microfilm through the National Archives and the Family History Library, among other repositories, you actually have easy access to these enumeration district maps. Even public libraries with good genealogy departments are likely to have these microfilms.

Using the Maps

Once you have found your ancestor in the city directory, you will need to turn to the maps to determine the enumeration district. As you work with the maps, you will begin to get a feel for the organization of the listings. Some of them are very detailed, listing the outer boundaries of the ED. When used in conjunction with the maps that are often located in the front of city directories, you can begin to see how they canvassed a given city.

You may discover that your particular street is listed in more than one enumeration district. Even if there are three or four enumeration districts that need to be searched, that has still greatly reduced your work. And you are not actually having to go line-by-line looking at each surname.

How do you find your person without going line by line? Well the street names are included in the census. This means you can scan the census pages looking for the street name rather than having to search names of all the people on the page. This can greatly reduce the time it takes to search a census for your ancestors.

In Conclusion

While this system isn't as simple as finding them in a soundex and going right to them, you will get to broaden your experience with city directories. You also do decrease the amount of time it takes to search the census, making it a doable task rather than an insurmountable research problem.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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