Finding your ancestors in census records

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Imagine that you're ready to look for your ancestors in census records. You hop in the car and drive to the nearest library, archives, or Family History Center. On arrival, you find the microfilm roll for the area where you believe your ancestors lived. You then go into a dimly lit room, insert the microfilm into the reader, and begin your search. After a couple hours of rolling the microfilm, the back pain begins to set in, cramping in your hands becomes more severe, and the handwritten census documents become blurry as your eyes strain from reading each entry line by line. You come to the end of the roll and still haven't found your elusive ancestor. At this point, you begin to wonder if a better way exists.

Fortunately, a better way does exist for a lot of census records: census indexes. A census index contains a listing of the people who are included in particular census records, along with references indicating where you can find the actual census record. Traditionally, these indexes come in book form, but you can now find these indexes online.

Although no single World Wide Web site contains indexes of all available census records for all countries (at least not yet), some sites contain substantial collections of census indexes.

So how do you find these online indexes? Well, there are a few ways, depending upon whether you want to use a free site or a subscription site. First, you can check a comprehensive index site, search engine, or a site listing links to census indexes to find an index that was placed on a free site by an individual or group project.

If you don't want to pay a fee to access census indexes online, you can find some census indexes under the USGenWeb Archives Census Project at www.rootsweb.com/~usgenweb/census/.

The Census Project is a volunteer effort to index the United States censuses and provide them online for free. If you can't find an index there, try a site dedicated to providing links to online census resources, such as Census Online (www.census-online.com) or CensusLinks (www.censuslinks.com), or a geographic-specific site, such as the county-level pages in the USGenWeb Project (www.usgenweb.org). Also, a number of independent sites have census indexes; typically you can find them by using a search engine such as Google (www.google.com).

Say you want to find Samuel Abell, who lived in St. Mary's County, Maryland, in 1790. Your first step is to see if an index is available for that county during V^l^y' the 1790 Census. To do this, try the following:

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