Using Census Records Updated October 29, 2000
The census records are a valuable resource for researchers - as long as several things are kept in mind.
1. CENSUS RECORDS ARE SECONDARY SOURCES. Census records should not be considered a primary source. There is no way to know who gave the information to the census taker. A neighbor, or someone living nearby may have given the information. A child, relative or visitor to the house may have given the information. Then the researcher has to consider that a human wrote down the information. All of these things can and do affect census records. Always use these records as guide to finding other, more reliable records. (What are Secondary and Primary Sources?)
2. INDEXES ARE GREAT IF USED FOR A GUIDE. Using indexes or indexing
systems can help the researcher tremendously when trying to find ancestors. However,
it must be kept in mind that a human transcribed the records for indexing. This
means that records could have been left out, the transcriber may have misread the entries,
or skipped entries all together. The researcher should also look for name
variations on the "correct" spelling. A relative could be found under:
Lamphear, Lamfear, Laumfear, etc. Think about when you order a pizza or give
your name at a restaurant - how often do they get your name correct? (If your name
is Lamphear - the answer is ALMOST NEVER. If your surname is Jones or Smith this
wouldn't apply, but you get the idea.)
Another oddity about the Soundex is the way the codes work. Sometimes the researcher has to get creative to find all the entries for a surname. Never overlook the various spelling of a name - who knows how the original entry was spelled and/or how the indexer chose to interpret those entries. For example old handwriting can be misread and often is - an L could look like an S. When looking for Lamphear, don't forget to look for Samphear as well. (See the various spellings of Lamphear).
4. SOMETIMES YOU HAVE TO SUCK IT UP AND SPEND TIME SEARCHING THE ACTUAL
RECORDS. Searching the actual census records for an entire township or
county isn't exactly the best way to spend a Saturday afternoon. BUT it could be
time well spent if a once unknown or missing relative is found. Extended families,
in-laws, grandparents, children, etc. may be found this way. Even if a listing is
found in an index or soundex, always check the actual record. Most often there is
valuable information listed that couldn't or wasn't included on the index or soundex.
Note About Accuracy. When using data from the internet, please take the precaution of double checking the source document. Whenever possible find the original census records and source documents from that time (birth, death, land deeds, tax rolls, etc.) to confirm that the person listed is indeed the one you are looking for.