30 April 2019

How to Fully Process Your Census Documents

A process improves the quality of your work, but only if you follow it!

One of my realistic 2019 genealogy goals is to search for every missing census form for the people in my family tree. I'm up to last names beginning with the letter R.

That sounds terrific, but the bulk of my family is named Sarracino and Saviano, so I've got a long way to go.

To do this, I'm scrolling down the "Need to find" column of my document tracker. That's where I keep track of every document I've collected for anyone in my tree. I'm on the lookout for any mention of a census in that column.

On Sunday I got through the letters P and Q. I may not find every single missing census, but I am finding a lot. The point is to make a good effort and see what comes up.

Once I find a missing census, a 5-step process needs to happen. That's what I want to share with you. Years ago I didn't follow this process. Experience taught me it's absolutely critical.

Follow these steps to make the most of every fact in every census sheet. One disclaimer: I have no ancestor who was in a U.S. census before 1900. I know the earlier censuses give you a lot less detail, but the ideas are the same.

1. Naming Style

Download the census sheet image and give it a logical name. Create a format that makes sense to you and stick to it. My format uses the head of household's name and the year of the census.

What naming style will make sense to future you, and your successor?
What naming style will make sense to future you and your successor?

2. Filing System

Save the file in the proper folder. You should have a filing system that makes sense to you. If I ask you to show me the 1930 census for your grandfather's family, how quickly can you find it?

I keep every census image in the "census forms" folder in my "FamilyTree" folder. These are on my computer and backed up to a cloud at the same time.

3. Image Properties

Add information to the image file itself. Right-click the image file and choose Properties, Details. Give it a logical title, like "1900 census for John Joseph Glennon and family". Lead with the year to sort the images chronologically in Family Tree Maker. Add a description that makes the image re-traceable. Here's my format:
  • line numbers, so you or anyone can find the family on the page
  • name of the document, such as "1900 United State Federal Census"
  • details showing how it's filed at the National Archives. For example, "Connecticut > Fairfield > Bridgeport Ward 11 > District 0076; supervisor's district 38, enumeration district 76, sheet 4A"
  • image number on Ancestry or wherever your found it, such as "image 7 of 56"
  • the document's URL, such as "https://www.ancestry.com/interactive/6061/4294445-01032"
Store facts with the image file to add traceability.
Store facts with the image file to add traceability.

That image is going to be part of your family tree, and these facts make it 100% credible. The URL is handy for you when you realize the head of household's brother is probably living nearby.

4. Information Gathering

Now you can add all the details and the image to all the right people in your family tree. Start with the head of household. Give them:
  • their year of birth, based on their age in this census
  • the street address with the date found at the top of the page
  • their occupation or their unemployment. I tend to assume they worked in the same city because commuting wasn't a thing back in the day.
  • any notations about immigration or naturalization
  • their number of years married or age at first marriage
  • their veteran status
  • their language spoken. For me, it's always the same. The old-timers spoke Italian, but their American-born children spoke English.
  • on the 1940 census, record where they lived in 1935. Was it the "same house" (use that address), the "same place" (use the city), or a different city?
  • attach the census image to the head of household. The title and description you gave it earlier should carry over to your genealogy software. In Family Tree Maker, I add the date of the census and give the image a category of "Census".
Take this bit of perfection and spread it to each member of the household.
Take this bit of perfection and spread it to each member of the household.

Now, repeat! For each member of the household, add:
  • their year of birth
  • the address
  • their occupation, if they had one
  • immigration or naturalization years
  • every other fact that's something you want to note
  • attach a copy of the same image
5. Tracking

My final step is to make a note of this census in my document tracker. If this was a missing census, I put its year in each family member's Census column and remove it from their "Need to find" column.

A tracking spreadsheet keeps your genealogy research on track.
A tracking spreadsheet keeps your genealogy research on track.

One of my readers told me this level of thoroughness is way more than she cares to do. But what if this hobby gets to be more important to you as time goes by? What if a DNA match doubts your work? How much will you regret your slapdash way of recording facts? (Note: "Slapdash" is dictionary.com's cleaner version of what I'm thinking. "Sloppy" is another good one.)

I hope this process gives you an idea of what a superstar you are or how much more you can do. I have no regrets about being this thorough. Except when it's late at night and I find a big household to process.

And even then, I'll either trudge through the steps or save them for the next day. It's that important.


  1. DiAnn, I'd love to see something on setting up this Document Tracker. I'm sure you've already given it, but I probably didn't save it, thinking it wasn't pertinent to my work. Obviously, it is, and I'm ready to add it to my regimen.

    1. Sure! I've written about it several times. Here are the main ones:

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Thank you for this blog entry...I'll be reading the other four also. Your information is so

    1. Thanks...I'm eager to see if this type of detailed process article is well received.

  3. This was very helpful - I'm trying to start over with my research and enter everything properly but it is overwhelming. This breaks this part down in to manageable steps. Thanks!

  4. I started a similar thing, but being in Aust, we don't have the luxury of Census records, but I am collecting copies of Electoral rolls, and other documents and indexes. I'm also going back on family lines rather than alphabetical for now, will fill in those later on. This all stemmed back to a Do-over of my tree and fixing my citations as well, tedious work but going to be worth it in the end.

    1. I definitely think it's worth doing correctly and fully. Yesterday I finished one of my 2019 genealogy goals, which was to make a sincere effort to find every U.S. census record I was missing. There are several I still can't find, but I did find a ton of them. Next chore will be to find all the missing ship manifests.

  5. I have found that using the comments field in the metadata does NOT stick or transfer to other computer formats but using the AUTHOR field does, both in Windows and Mac.

    1. That's interesting, and something I haven't tried. Thanks, Peggy.