Locating people in historical U.S. census records (1790-1950) is easier than ever due to national indexing on popular commercial genealogy websites – something that did not exist three decades ago. Before 1990 it was necessary to consult indexes in books or on microfilm for specific states, and to actually physically be at an archives, library, or other facility that had census microfilm. However, there are still times when people can be elusive in census records. Here are a few reasons; please comment with experiences you’ve had.

1. The person’s surname was recorded as a phonetic variation that sounds similar to the expected spelling due to the pronunciation or accent of the speaker, such as Weston for Westurn, Hefford for Hayford, Brechtel for Prechtel, Stephenson for Stevenson, or McAlley for McCullar.

2. The person’s name is not spelled as expected because the U.S.-born enumerator had trouble understanding the person’s non-English name due to the speaker’s language and native accent, such as Chimel for Siml, a Bohemian name, or Brechtel for Prechtel, a German name. One humorous example is “Cheese Bologna” for Narciso Bailoni, an immigrant from Italy (Austria), as shown below in the 1920 census:

Image:  Household of Cheese Bologna, Ward 4, Mount Carmel Borough, Northumberland Co., Pennsylvania, ED 103, Sheet 1A, Line 31, NARA Microfilm Publication T625, Fourteenth Census of the United States, 1920, Roll 1612.

3. The person’s middle name, nickname, or initials were recorded instead of his or her first name.

4. The person’s name is hard to decipher because the enumerator’s handwriting was poor or sloppy.

5. The creator of the index on which you are relying did understand the handwriting so the person’s name is not indexed correctly.

6. The enumerator was literate and spelled common names correctly, but lacked enough education to spell unusual names correctly.

7. The person’s mother remarried and the enumerator listed the woman’s children from her prior marriage(s) by their stepfather’s surname instead of their father’s surname. For example, in the 1900 census, the surname of Thomas Ives and B. Lucy Ives was recorded as Brumagin, the surname of their mother's second husband, to whom she had been married for five years: 

Image:  Household of Sam Brumagin, Ward 5, Ashtabula, Ashtabula Co., Ohio, ED 8, Sheet 10B, Line 74, NARA Microfilm Publication T623, Twelfth Census of the United States, 1900, Roll 1238.

8. The person was temporarily away from his or her family at the time of the enumeration. The person’s family may not have mentioned this person to the enumerator because they assumed he or she would be reported somewhere else—but wasn’t.

9. The person is not living where expected and/or not living in the expected household. If he or she is living with nonrelatives, the person’s name and other personal information might be misreported.

10. The person’s surname was mistakenly recorded as being the same surname as the unrelated family listed above them on the census page.

11. The person’s surname and first name were reversed by the enumerator.

12. The person changed their name in adulthood, was given a new name upon adoption as a child, or otherwise was known and enumerated by a different name than expected.

13. The person gave a pseudonym to the enumerator. For examples, see Census Fun Fact #2 – Fictional Names:  Just Call Me Another Time.

14. The person was missed by the enumerator because he or she was traveling for an extended period of time, had no fixed address, or was living in frontier areas where governmental institutions were sparse.

15. The formerly enslaved person switched surnames in the post-Civil War period and was enumerated under different surnames in 1870, 1880, and 1900.

16. The person was missed by the enumerator even though someone was presumably at home. As one example, in 1930, a census enumerator in Boston found and enumerated the non-Jewish family that lived at a Jewish school, where the husband/father was the janitor. In 1940, the census enumerator walked past the school, apparently assuming that no one lived at the school, so that same family was not enumerated.

17. Before 1900, Native Americans who were living freely with their tribes in areas outside of effective Federal Government control were not enumerated. (Those who lived on Indian Reservations were enumerated. Beginning in 1860, some Native Americans living among the general population were also enumerated.)

18. The person was born after the official census day – or died before official census day.

19. The person was enumerated on the 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930, 1940, or 1950 census, but the page on which he or she was enumerated on was mistakenly not microfilmed by the Bureau of the Census before the original paper census records were destroyed. One example of a missing page is Sheet 11A, ED 3-38, Florence, Burlington County, New Jersey.  It should be on NARA Microfilm Publication T626, Fifteenth Census of the United States, 1930, Roll 1318, but is not.

20. The person was missed or not enumerated for unknown reasons.

Thus, there are a multitude of ways that a person might have been “missed” or misreported in U.S. census records. Have you found one of these situations in your own research?  Or one not mentioned above?

This page was last edited November 25, 2022.

  • As a variation of #14, I have had problems finding 1940 census information for an uncle that I know enlisted in 1939 and was on active duty at the time of the census.  In ancestry website help they suggest that if not found at their original residence, that I should look at the place his unit was based.  He was on a ship and I tried looking at their home port but no luck.  Any suggestions???