Genealogy Tips: Searching the Census by Address
Ever wondered who lived in your home before you? Perhaps it was someone famous? Or someone infamous. Maybe you have tried searching for your great-grandparents in old census records, but you are having trouble finding them using the indexes? Searching—or browsing—the census by address will help you do this. The United States Federal Census, from 1790 through 1940, is available through subscription genealogy databases like Ancestry, FindMyPast, and HeritageQuest, and free through FamilySearch, and others. To browse the census, searching for an address, is much easier if you can find something called an ED (Enumeration District) number.
Genealogy is full of brick walls. For instance, you're following a name through the censuses, tracing a family line back through the years, when you hit a dead end. You have your ancestor in, let's say, the 1940 census, back through 1930, 1920, and 1910, but you can't seem to find your ancestor in the 1900 census. You believe this is only a few years after they immigrated, and you really want to see that record: it describes your family's first years in the United States, so is an important record. You've tried searching by name, but nothing works.
Perhaps that name hasn't been indexed correctly, or the enumerator misspelled the name, or had sloppy handwriting? Perhaps your ancestor wasn't there at all? You've tried Soundex searches, truncated searches, variant spellings. You've tried searching the spouse and children's names, and nearby friends and relatives, in case that approach works. Alas you have drawn a blank.
One possible way around this problem may be to browse the census, in order to search by address. To do this the researcher needs to generate an enumeration district (ED) number. To do that one needs an address. This post will tell you how you find an ancestor's address at census time, how to generate an ED number, and how to browse the census. For free, online.
What is an Enumeration District?
An enumeration district is an area assigned to a census taker (also known as an enumerator) at census time that could be covered in one census taking period. In a densely populated area, an enumeration district may cover only two or three blocks, or an institution, like a school or hospital. In rural areas, an enumeration district may cover many square miles, or a whole county. Each area is assigned a number, an enumeration district, or ED number. A researcher can use that number to browse the census more efficiently, to locate an address, and a name.
In order to discover the enumeration district within which an address falls—the numbers are different for each census—a researcher can use an enumeration district map (example from 1900 above), like those found at Ancestry, or in Room 121, the Milstein Division. Alternatively, an ED number can be found using an online enumeration district number generator, in this instance One-Step by Stephen Morse.
1. Find an address.
Before we can generate an ED number, we need to first locate a name and address in a record or directory from as near to the year of the census as possible. N.B. bear in mind that the census can only be searched by a street address from 1870 in Manhattan (2nd enumeration) or 1880 for the rest of the country. Possible address sources include:
- City or telephone directories
- Military draft cards
- Family archives
- Digitized newspapers
- Vital records
- Records of citizenship
Once you have your ancestor's address from an approximate census year (within a few years if possible), work out the historical cross streets. An easy way to do this is using a digitized historical property map online. You can search for digitized historical property maps online using New York Public Library's Map Warper, NYPL Digital Collections, or Old Maps Online, or the street directory in a historical city directory.
For instance, Trow's New York City Directory for 1900 (above, left) lists
Miller, Christopher butcher h 416 E 18th
The G.W. Bromley Atlas of 1899 (above, right) shows the cross streets for 416 East 18th Street, Manhattan, as 1st Avenue and Avenue A, and the back street as East 17th Street.
2. Generate an ED number.
To generate an ED number first select the census you want to browse (1880, 1900, 1910, etc.), and then fill out the address details you want to locate.
Using our sample address, for instance, we can now generate an E.D. number. We select, in One-Step, Unified Census ED Finder the following:
- Census year: 1900
- State: New York
- County: New York County
- City or Town: Manhattan
- House Number: 416
- Street: 18th E
- Cross or back street : 1st Av
- Cross or back street: Av A
- Cross or back street [in this case the back street]: 17th E
This generates the 1900 ED number New York : 432 (see blow).
You can now use the ED number you have generated to browse the census.
3. Browse the United States Census
You can do this at any genealogy site that has a browseable, digitized U.S. Federal census collection; Ancestry, FindMyPast, HeritageQuest, FamilySearch, or the Internet Archive, for instance. We're going to use FamilySearch, as this is a free site.
- Google familysearch 1900
- You should see a link to United States Census, 1900 — FamilySearch.org
- Scroll down and click Browse through 1,602,454 images.
- Click State: New York
- Click County: New York
- Look for and click ED 432 Borough of Manhattan [...]
- You will now be looking at the pages from the 1900 census that describe the New York, New York Enumeration District number 432.
Provided that you are looking at a census that describes addresses, in the first page of the census you will see, to the far left, a column along which is written the street name, in this case "East 17th." In the next column to the right, you will see listed building numbers. Look for the street name and number where your ancestor lived. If you don't see the address listed, you will have to browse through the pages until you do. This is approximately true for all censuses that describe street names and numbers.
Browsing through the pages that describe ED 432 Borough of Manhattan in the 1900 US federal Census, we find the residents of 416 East 18th Street listed on page 24, including Christopher Miller and his family: see below.
5 further tips...
- Rural areas do not always describe street names and building numbers.
- If you do not see your address described in the census, it may be at the back of the ED section you are browsing. If your ancestor was not at home for instance, the census taker may have returned later and taken the household details then.
- Remember: street names and numbers change. Try to consult maps or street directories from the approximate years of the census you are browsing.
- Search city directories either side of a census year, to make sure you have the correct address. For the 1910 census, for instance, consult directories from 1909 through 1911 (where available).
- Sometimes the genealogy database, or the census map does not describe enumeration districts as clearly as we would like. Sometimes a database will offer browsing of different administrative districts used at census time, wards, assembly districts (AD), or supervisor's district (SD), for instance. A census map might describe an electoral district, which is different from an enumeration district. In the case of the databases, you might have to click through the ward, AD, or SDs listed to find the enumeration district you are looking for. With census maps describing electoral districts, there may be a key or guide describing how you work out an ED using an electoral district map.
No one ever said genealogy would be easy!
As usual, write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, with all your genealogy queries, especially as they relate to this post.
Praise, suggestions, observations, criticisms, etc, are welcome in the comments below.