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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: Tradition vs. High Tech - Working in the Census
by Rhonda R. McClure

February 07, 2002
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

I am the first person to extol the virtues of the computer, especially when it comes to researching ancestors. Genealogy programs are major time-savers when it comes to entering the information we track down. The Internet has afforded us the opportunity to correspond with many people that previously we would have been unaware of. And, the recent push to digitize some of the more popular records is certainly a plus.

With all of these things going for it, the computer can also trap you in an endless research loop. This is true of the census records and the indexes that are available online. It is important to understand the intricacies of how the computer is running the search. It is equally important to get to know the database to see if you have options in the way you run your search.

Apply traditional research to online databases.

Traditional Census Search

There are actually two methods available when working in the traditional census records on microfilm. The first is to go to the county microfilm, put it on the reader and then spend the next few hours going line-by-line looking at each household. This is certainly one way of working with census, though it works much better in rural areas, where a county is on one to two microfilm rolls at the most and thus the approach is not completely overwhelming. I actually encourage this approach when there is time to do it. You find many family members as you work from one page of the census to the next.

The other method, is to begin with the Soundex, when it is available. You find your individual in the cards and then turn your attention to the census itself. I have seen some people stop once they have found the family in the Soundex. This is a mistake. There is much more information available on the census page itself, including years married, how many children the mother has given birth to, and how many are still alive.

There are times, though, when working with the Soundex that our individual does not appear where we expect him to be. For instance, Anthony Ferrari. We would naturally gravitate toward those given names beginning with A in our initial search for this individual. However, it is possible that Anthony is listed in the census as Tony, and we will not find him as Anthony.

When this happens, or when we are searching for a child and do not know the name of the parents, we often must look at each Soundex card containing the surname of interest. In traditional research, using the microfilmed records, this option is available to us. We are also more apt to take this approach.

Online Census Search

The research approach we take when working with online or computerized census records differs. Most often we forget to think about variations in the spelling of the surname or the given name.

Soundex cards group all surnames with the same Soundex code together. This means if there was a variation in the spelling of the surname, you are still likely to find the card you were looking for. The computer, though, is literal. If you type in the surname Ferrari, then that is all the computer will display. It will not show you a spelling of Pherrari or Ferari. As a result, your research online may be met with initial frustration, at least until you begin to run your searches with the computer's limitations in mind.

When I am working in the 1900 Census on, I seldom use the global search link on the front page. Instead, I go to "My Online Databases," found under "My" and then I select the specific database I wish to search. It could be the New York 1900 Census. So instead of doing a blanket search of the entire 1900 census, I limit my search to a given state. Of course, this approach only works when I am sure the family in question will be found in that state. Once the individual state's page pops up, I then find I have two options: I can search for just the surname, or I can do a search for an individual.

Let me take a moment to point out that the index to the 1900 census on is of the head of household only. If you are looking for a child in a family, then you would want to take the surname approach. Generally, when I am using this approach in addition to knowing the state, I also often have a good idea as to the county. As I begin to scroll through the list of individuals with the surname in question I am watching the county names and select those that I find for the counties in which I think the family lived.

This approach differs from how most individuals use the online census. So often I find that people type in the name of the person they are seeking and then leave disappointed when the individual does not appear.

Think Outside the Lines

Instead of the one shot approach, you should run a variety of searches. Start out using the given name and surname approach if searching for the head of the family. Use each variation of the surname you can think of and then also try to come up with potential variations of the given name. Don't forget about nicknames.

If that approach doesn't yield the individual in question, begin to look for them using the surname only approach. Search each variant spelling you can think of and then look through the list of individuals who are listed for that spelling.

Finally, you can search page by page in the online census. Find a person in the county you wish to search and then open that census page. You will find that at the top of the census image there is an option for viewing the previous or the next census image. Use these links to go back to the beginning of the county and then begin to look through the county page by page. Let me caution you that this approach is only for those with true patience and a fast Internet connection. While I have done it on occasion, it has only been in those rural counties where I was certain the individual should be. Such an approach can easily take an entire night's research time.

In Conclusion

When working with digitized images and the indexes for those images, we sometimes forget that traditional research approaches. While the traditional methods must be considered and used, the actual implementation of those steps will be different online because of the way in which computers interpret what we type.

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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