Making Sense of the Census

By Loita Hawkinson

Census records from your home PC


If you know how to search for census records using HeritageQuest, you will not want to read any further.  If you have ever spent valuable time with tedious microfilm readers then you might find this information of interest.  At the very least, you need to know this service is available to you should the time and interest arrive in your life.  Census reading can be addictive and it has a wealth of information.

HeritageQuest is a subscribed Database, paid for by King County Library and you can access it from home using your library card.  Simply type in King County Library or  From the library home page, click on Databases.  From here click on Genealogy.  At this time, you will be shown several subscribed databases such as  AncestryPlus and HeritageQuest.  The AncestryPlus is only accessible at the library.  Click on HeritageQuest and they will ask for your library card number.  Enter the entire number without any spaces and hit enter.  Now click on Census..  Be sure to take a look at the other options also to see if there is anything for your family or area of interest.  Entire books with many volumes are on the Publications site.  It is mind-boggling what they have.  But I am just addressing the census records.

Every 10 years the government releases the 72-year-old census records and makes them available for researching.  There is a government project that is indexing all older and newly released census records.  By indexing, the census record is typed in with all information given on the census.  Only the head of household and unrelated persons are transcribed on this index.  Many years are entirely indexed.  Some years have not been started.  1930 is partially indexed at this time.  All the census pages have been scanned from the microfilm so all the census pages are available for viewing on your home computer…it just takes a lot more time to browse the image but still much better than the microfilm readers and much more convenient from home.

Click on Census.  At the top left of the screen, you will see Search and Browse.  Search allows you type in the name and you will be given all names that are indexed.  Browse allows you to select a census year, state, county, township and view every census page.  First click on SEARCH.  Type in the last name of the person and hit enter.  Now you can search down the screen for your person, they will be in alphabetical order.  When found, click on the record and that will bring up the entire census image.  Scan down the page.  If you do not find the name, scan to the top of the page, click on the page arrow to give you the second part of the sheet.  Scan down until you find the head of household you are looking for, the person will be on one of these two pages.   Under that head of household will be the rest of the household…spouse, children, boarders, employees, visitors.  If you have found your family, you might want to page forward and back and see other pages.  Census takers went from one house or farm to the next so neighbors will surround your family.

If you are searching a common name, you may have too many hits.  You must then do a more advanced search and add additional known information.  Start with the state and search again.  If you still have too many hits, add more information.  It is best not to search using a first name because Robert Allen Jones can be listed as Robert, Robt, Bobby, Bob, B, B A, etc.  Carl might be Karl.  And this can vary for census to census.   But if your last name is very common and you are getting too many hits, add the first name and search.  Change the first name and search.  Use the Initial and search.  It is a little tedious but the actual search is quick and in a minute or two, you might find your family.   Advanced searches allow you to add county, town, birth country etc.  Add this information as needed.

Once I have found my census record, I save it.  It will be saved in a gif image and with their file name, which will mean nothing to me so I rename the file before saving it.   I type in the last name and other family names, the state, and the year.  It looks something like:  Smith-Jacob-Ida-children-MN-1870.gif.  Now I have it for easy research.  I can also print the page from my program.  And I can email it to other family.

There are two reasons to use the Browse option:  First, because you did not find your family using the basic search.  And second, not all census records are indexed at this time.  Only a small part of the newly released census is indexed and some years have not been started.   When they are all done, it will be 2012 and time for the 1940 census to be released and this will be much larger than the 1930.

Click on BROWSE:  Then enter year of census, the state, the county, the area (might be town or village or school district).  Hit enter and you will find yourself on the first page of the census for that town.  It will also tell you how many pages are in this record.  Scan down, go back to top, page forward, scan down etc until you find the person you are looking for.   If the communities are small and close together, you can keep paging forward or back and view surrounding communities.

If you do not find someone, it might be because they were just plain missed.  This did not happen a great deal.  Census takers were diligent.  It might be that the county is wrong.  County bounders changed.  And towns often were not named.  Kirkland settlers in 1880 are found in the Juanita precinct.  The 1890 census for the entire US burned so we have lost that history.  In 1900 they are in the Kirkland Precinct.  By 1910 we are finally the city of Kirkland …having been incorporated in 1905.

Spelling can be a problem using HeritageQuest.  Spelling has to be exact.  Errors in names were made at the time of the census, typos happened at the time of transcribing.  And some writing makes it impossible to read.  An “ee” can be confused with a “u”, the tail of the “g” or “y” in the above line can cross the “l” and make it appear to be a “t”.  But with all this, it is amazing how accurate these records are.

With HeritageQuest, you can search under a first name only.  From there the last names are in alphabetical order and you can just scan down until you find a name that is close.  I found my Grandfather Albert this way.  His last name was written wrong…close but still wrong.  I had to do a page by page browse to find my Gr Grandmother when she was a widow.  I knew where she was so all it took was my time.  I entered 1900, MN, Wright Co, Albion .  They had both her first and last names spelled wrong, but she was a widow, her 6 children followed and all of their ages, so I know I found her.  Using the browse feature can be tedious, especially if you do not pin point the county and town.  But it still beats microfilm.  You have to know the same information then too.

Once you are on a census image, you are in the actual census….just like you have the paper records in front of you.  You can page forward or back, even changing towns.  It is informative to see who lived around the family.  If you knew this person, you might find the names familiar.  You might even find more of your family.  Many marriages came from close-knit communities.

And the 1890 census did burn…almost all of it.  But what is remaining, was microfilmed and can be viewed on HeritageQuest.  The pages are burned, some are blank, all are soiled.  But they too are history.  I have great respect for the historians who chose to preserve these pages.

HeritageQuest is a very reliable database.  But if you find that you cannot have access, it is because it is being updated.  This census site is a work in progress and they add indexed records as they become available.

If you have found HeritageQuest valuable, please call or drop King County Library a note of thanks.  The larger library systems pay 17 cents per resident.  That is a lot of tax $$$$.  Few libraries provide this service.  We are very lucky.