No hunt for the family history would be complete without a search of the census, but it can be a confusing source to use when you're new to genealogical research.

In the quest to construct a family tree, you're practically guaranteed to run across a relative that you would swear never actually existed. Perhaps your research went wrong somewhere earlier on, or perhaps you're simply not looking in the right places. When you think you've hit a dead end, try these tips for locating an especially well-hidden ancestor:

  • Search for initials. If you can't find your relative listed by their first name and you're unable narrow down their location well enough to allow for a surname-based search, try using their initials. Some names appear on the census with an initial used for the first name, the middle name, or both names. An individual named “O. F. Grey,” for instance, would appear under a search for either “O. Grey” or “F. Grey.”
  • Search for nicknames. It's relatively common for the same person to be listed under their formal name in one census and a nickname in another. Familiarize yourself with popular nicknames for common first names, as well as with their lesser-known alternatives.
  • Search for middle names. It's possible that a relative was listed by their first name in one census, but by their middle name in another census. As with nicknames, it's not uncommon for a person to go by their middle name rather than by their first name, so be sure that you look into all possibilities.
  • Search by both name and location. If an ancestor is proving to be particularly hard to find, try to locate them using both their surname and their location. Conduct a search using their surname only, but restrict it by state, county, or town in order to decrease the number of results returned.
  • Search for other affiliated individuals. Look for siblings, children, and other relatives who may be easier to find, then try to trace the family history from there. If your ancestor called the same location home for a long time, you can even search for people who were listed nearby in adjacent census years, then try to track your family down.
  • Search using symbols. When you're unsure of the spelling of a relatives name, some genealogy sites allow you to use symbols called “wildcards” to represent the unknown letters. For example, an asterisk is often used to represent an unknown number of characters at the end of a word, while a question mark is usually used to represent a single missing character.

If all else fails, searching without a name can be an option. Some ancestry search engines allow you to search by other known facts and identifying information, like date and place of birth.

For services that assist you in finding out your family history you can take a look at the reviews found in our Genealogy category.