A Census Search Trick for Hard-to-Find Ancestors

By Diane Haddad

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I was afraid I’d never find my Norris family in the 1870 census, despite searching every which way for my third-great-grandfather Edward Norris and other members of the household.

However, I decided to make one final attempt. One night I went home and tried a strategy we often recommend in Family Tree Magazine: Find a neighbor, then browse. And it worked!

One way to browse census records is to figure out which census enumeration district (ED) the person lived in, then page through schedules covering that ED. But the right ED isn’t always the easiest to find. This strategy worked better for me:

Step One: Locate the address

First, I looked in city directories for my ancestor’s address in 1870, or as close to 1870 as I could get. The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County Virtual Library has the digitized 1870 Williams’ Cincinnati Directory (as well as many other years) for free. Here he is (misnamed Edwin), at 368 Broadway, the same address where he died in 1890.

Cincinnati city directory
Looking in the Cincinnati city directory

Step Two: Locate the neighbors

Now to find a neighbor to search for in the census. The city directory was a PDF on the library website. I hit command-F to bring up the Find window and typed 368 Broadway. Here’s a neighbor, Caroline Niehouse:

Finding neighbors in city directories.
Using the command-F keyboard shortcut to find a neighbors on 368 Broadway

I searched the 1870 census for the neighbor. I got only four results, one of which was Caroline “Nichaus.” Here’s her family:

Looking for neighbors in the census.
Census entries for Caroline “Nichaus”

Step Three: Browse the census pages

I started browsing the census pages—and then stopped. When I moved up the page, my ancestor’s household was just above Caroline’s. I recognized the first names and Edward’s occupation, stonemason:

Searching census pages.
Edward and Caroline’s census entries

The enumerator’s handwriting is lovely, but I don’t think I ever would’ve read “Norris” from this:

Census entry.
Beautiful (and indecipherable) handwriting

The family is indexed as “Nalas.” I added an annotation with the correct name in, so it’ll be easier to find. “Nalas” family members probably were included in my results when I was searching for names, but Irish Edwards, Elizabeths and Catherines being quite common, I had a ton of results and didn’t click on these particular matches.

If you ever do need to find a census ED, One Step Web Pages by Stephen P. Morse has tools to help you find EDs for 1880 through 1940, plus 1870 in New York. (Scroll down to the Census section.) You’ll need to know the house number and street, and it helps to know cross streets.

Related Reads

Discover important family history clues hidden in the US census. We won’t let you miss—or misinterpret—your ancestors’ entries.
Learn how to find census records online at the major databases, including and FamilySearch.
Despite its importance, the US census can come riddled with genealogical errors. Here’s how to avoid them.