First Steps: Using Census Records

Our new First Steps series of courses is designed to help beginning genealogists develop a solid foundation of research skills. In this course, you’ll learn the basics on how to find, analyze and cite census records for your US ancestors.

The census contains a wealth of information for US genealogists and is the cornerstone of a sound family history. In the census you can learn about families, education, wealth and even how long a marriage lasted or the number of children a woman bore. We’ll discuss the early censuses from 1790 through 1840, and censuses that list all household members, from 1850 through 1940.


$39.99 ($35.99 for VIP)

Course Length:

2 Weeks


Lisa A. Alzo

Start Date:

View upcoming course schedule for dates.


  • the type of information found in each federal census
  • how to analyze census records
  • how to find and search online census databases
  • how to find ancestors using microfilmed Soundex indexes
  • how to use early “head-of-household” censuses
  • alternatives for missing records (such as the lost 1890 census)
  • what special “nonpopulation” census records you should also look for
  • hints and techniques in each lesson


  • Family researchers new to census searching
  • Genealogists who want to learn new tricks to track down elusive ancestors
  • People unfamiliar with online census searching


  • This course assumes you understand the basics principles of genealogy and have done some investigation into your family history. If you are a total beginner, consider taking the Discover Your Family Tree course before enrolling in this class.
  • Access to will help you get the most from this class. Many libraries offer free on-site access to Ancestry Library Edition.


Lesson 1: Census Basics

A. History of the US Census
I. Reason for the census
II. Census dates
III. Enumerator Instructions
IV. Enumeration districts
V. Availability

B. Overview of US Censuses, 1790 to 1940
C. Census substitutes
D. Research clues in the census

Lesson 2: Online Census Records

A. Census database websites
B. Searching online censuses
I. General tips
III. Footnote
IV. FamilySearch Record Search Pilot
V. HeritageQuest Online
VI. Handwriting helps

C. Sources for free indexes and transcriptions

Lesson 3: Special censuses

A. Military schedules
I. 1840 veterans
II. 1890 veterans

B. 1880 DDD schedules
C. Mortality schedules

I. 1850 and 1860
II. 1870
III. 1880 and 1885
IV. 1900

D. Agricultural schedule

I. 1850
II. 1860
III. 1880

E. Manufacturing/Industry Schedules

I. 1810
II. 1820
III. 1850, 1860, 1870
IV. 1880
V. 1885

F. Slave Schedules
G. American Indian censuses

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