Access Census Images and Indexes Online
Traditionally, utilizing census records to research your family tree has involved wading through microfilm copies of the original handwritten pages, produced by the U.S. government to preserve the records from decay. These microfilmed census records are generally available for viewing at Family History Centers, the National Archives, and libraries with large genealogy or local history sections.
The better you understand the census enumeration process, the more information you can dig from census records. The U.S. Census Bureau publication Measuring America: The Decennial Censuses from 1790 to 2000 (
Because census lists were typically recorded in order of visitation, searching for a particular family on a microfilmed record can be cumbersome and time-consuming. The U.S. government did create indexes for many census years to assist researchers in locating specific individuals or families in the microfilmed census records; however, not all census records were indexed, and most were indexed only by the head of household — the individual identified to the census taker as the person responsible for the care of the home and/or family. With the recent advent of every-name computerized indexes, however, knowing the name of your ancestor or relative and the state he or she resided in is often enough to take you directly to the exact page and line where your ancestor is recorded.
Digitized images of original census pages are now readily available online, and every-name indexes allow you to click directly from your search results to a digital copy of the original census page where your ancestors were recorded — in the enumerator's own handwriting. Digital images are the best census records available online because they allow you to look directly at the record as it was originally created, without having to worry about whether a modern-day transcriber misread the handwriting or mistyped the data. Digital images also allow you to look at all of the information included on the original census, while transcriptions usually only include some of the most important details.
Free trials, available from most subscription genealogy sites, offer a great way to “try before you buy.” Such trial periods are generally short, so make the most of your time by creating a list of the people and records you want to search before you sign up. This will help you better evaluate whether to continue or cancel the subscription.
This is where Internet genealogy research really provides a boost over more traditional microfilm research. The entire U.S. census, including complete every-name indexes and digital images of the microfilmed pages, is available for searching and viewing on the Internet. The most comprehensive collection of U.S. census records is available through a subscription to
HeritageQuest — Complete set of census images, but not all are indexed (Free; available only at participating libraries)
Census indexes and images are also available online for other countries, including Canada, England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, and France.
Check Census Gateway Sites
Census indexes, transcriptions, and abstracts that have been placed online by volunteers and organizations can be most easily found by using a census directory site such as Census Online (
Other good census directories for locating free online census records include:
Census Finder (
African American Census Schedules Online (
Search or Browse the USGenWeb Census Project
Two large volunteer census efforts, both using the USGenWeb name, are outgrowths of the official USGenWeb Project. Neither is formally affiliated with the USGenWeb any longer, although they both still bear its name. Both census projects, however, still display the same volunteer spirit, offering free access to U.S. census data transcribed and put online by volunteers.
The first USGenWeb Census Project (
Which census year should I search first?
It's generally a good idea to begin with the most current census year available and work backward. In most cases, this is the 1930 census. If your ancestor was deceased by 1930, begin your search with the most recent census taken while he was still living, or the most recent census for which you know his location.
The second USGenWeb Census Project (
Access Census Records Online Through Your Local Library
Your library card could be your key to free census access. Hundreds of state, county, and local libraries offer free access to U.S. federal census indexes and images through subscriptions to Ancestry Library Edition or HeritageQuest Online. In the case of HeritageQuest Online, you can even save yourself a trip to the library and access the database remotely from home by logging in with your library card number (sometimes this requires signing up with your library first). Ask your local or state library whether they subscribe to these databases, or check out this fairly comprehensive list from Dick Eastman of libraries offering remote access to HeritageQuest Online (