Exploring the 1950 U.S. Census

Like any avid family history researcher or professional genealogist, I had known for years that the 1950 US census would be released on 1 April 2022. As the release date drew near, the number of articles, presentations, and blog posts about the 1950 census grew exponentially. Many people prepared to spend hours searching for their families starting at the stroke of midnight. I wasn’t among them. Why? I anticipated the website crashing under the weight of so many people trying to access the database. I might also have decided to go against the grain and not get caught up in the drama. Part of me wanted to learn from everyone else who went first. What I learned was that it was a rousing success so I set aside some time this morning to explore.

Background on the 1950 census

The 1950 census is the first census to be released with Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence technology. A machine reviewed the census and created a searchable database of names based on interpretation of handwriting. That’s amazing! It’s a far cry from the days of using the Soundex and microfilm in a dark room at the National Archives poring over faded copies for hours. It’s not quite what researchers have become accustomed to: a census that is indexed and easily searchable on more than one website. That’s coming soon.

Based on early ideas about using the 1950 census, I was prepared to spend hours looking for the Enumeration District (ED) where I thought my family might be. The machine-derived index made that irrelevant for my first searches. The index will be updated with human effort over the upcoming months. Indexes for the first two states, Wyoming and Delaware, have been released at MyHeritage. Ancestry and FamilySearch also have the images available and are working on indexing. Each company has unique search capability and index. Whenever you can’t find your family in an index, before giving up or resorting to reading each page, check an index at a different website.

For the machine-derived index, keep in mind that enumerators recorded information by household. Typically, the surname appears next to the head of the household and usually a straight line or nothing is written for subsequent family members of the same surname. That meant I wouldn’t be looking for my father and mother who were children at the time. I would be searching for my grandfathers.

The challenge: How long would it take to find my parents?

The two surnames I was searching for, Davis and Johnson, are incredibly common and my family wasn’t living in rural or remote areas in 1950. I was prepared to slog my way through reading many pages before I found them. Before I began, I reviewed a useful article by Teresa Koch-Bostic which is available for members of the National Genealogical Society. Then I started my timer.

Finding Dad: 9 minutes and 26 seconds

Here are my steps and what I found:

  • I reviewed my father’s timeline from my genealogy software, Reunion. I knew the family lived in Hollister, San Benito County, California. My dad graduated June 1952 from San Benito County High School.
  • I entered the National Archives website and clicked on search.
National Archives 1950 Census Welcome Page
  • I completed the information I had for state, county, and name, entering California, San Benito, Walt Davis (my grandfather’s name, the head of the household). I soon realized that Last Name, First Name order would be an improvement, but not crucial to success. I also noticed that the machine picked up the name David for Davis (see red arrow below), which is a good thing, since terminal letters in handwriting are often difficult to decipher. I switched my strategy and re-entered the name as Davis Walt. (His full name was Walton but he often went by Walt, and sometimes was confused with Walter, his father.)
1950 Census Search for “Davis Walt” in San Benito County, California
  • I scrolled the results and the 26th name I encountered was my grandfather, Walton Davis. The family appeared on the bottom of page 1 and the top of page 2.
1950 U.S. census, San Benito County, California, ED 35-2, page 1
1950 U.S. census, San Benito County, California, ED 35-2, page 1 with my father enumerated as “Alvaughn Hale Davis” (red arrow)

A close review of the page revealed the amount of information captured in the census. Although none of the information surprised me, seeing the names of my grandparents, uncle, and father, all gone now, made me smile. My grandmother’s stories of the auto dealership and garage sprang to mind and I could almost smell the oil and gas and see my grandfather disappointed with his challenges in receiving the type of cars he wanted to sell. I could picture my 16-year-old dad and his 17-year-old brother in coveralls with flat top haircuts, pumping gas and working in the garage.

My next step was to record the information in Reunion. The data entry took an additional 15 minutes because I created a new citation template for the 1950 census and added other useful information from the census to all the family member’s profiles. I updated my grandfather’s WikiTree biography and I will need to do the same for the rest of the family members.

Finding Mom: 1 minute and 47 seconds

I repeated the strategy for my mother, looking for my maternal grandfather, (in reverse order) “Johnson Lindell,” in Dyer County, Tennessee. Bingo! Six names down the list, there he was, along with his entire family (including my mother) at 420 Kist Avenue, the house I remember from my childhood (see arrow number 1, below). My great-uncle, his son and my great-grandmother all appear to be at the same house number, but I believe the second house was already on the property at that time. I’ll have to ask my uncle. My grandfather worked at the cotton mill down the street, as did my Aunt Earline, on line 22 (enumerated as Mildred E. Coleman.) A couple of their neighbors also worked at the mill. My great uncle A.W. (line 25, household 87) was delivering pottery. I grew up using the peach-shaped sugar bowl my mother received from his time driving the pottery truck.

Two family members appear in the supplemental information at the bottom of the page (arrow #2). The census used a sampling strategy and enumerators recorded additional information for every fifth person on the census. My uncle L.S. was on line 18 and my cousin Jimmy was on line 23. The corresponding lines in the bottom section show information about residence in past year, nativity of parents, schooling, work, income, and military service. The information for Uncle L.S. is interesting. He was 16 years old and the information indicates he had completed 4th grade and did attend school in 1950. He is over 14 but the next section is blank, when the section header indicates it should be filled out for anyone 14 or older. His enumeration data above on line 18 noted he was working, delivering papers. Jimmy was two, so the information for him isn’t very revealing. Important information may be here in other situations. It could be the impetus for searching military records, understanding the family’s social situation, or the key to discovering an immigration pattern.

My examples were simple cases. I knew the exactly where the families were living and both were reasonably-sized communities. I knew the address of one place but I didn’t need it. If I were doing research on a family that relocated often and was in an urban setting, my results would have been different.

Your turn!

I’m looking forward to catching up on other family members in 1950. I don’t have any burning questions right now about my family in that time period, so it’s likely I will coordinate gathering 1950 census information as I improve the biographies of my family on WikiTree. And the data might be important for upcoming client work. I’m glad I took the few short minutes to explore the 1950 census. I’ll be back soon!

Happy searching!

That new project feeling

Every new project has a honeymoon period. There’s the anticipation of what might be discovered and the pleasure of setting up the project so that the research proceeds smoothly. Here’s a glimpse into my project set-up process.

Research Log

A little over a year ago I started using Airtable as my research log. I have enough understanding of programming to be dangerous. I even took a class in Fortran in college and I learned how to use Microsoft Access when I worked in a health services research setting. I love relational databases even more than I love spreadsheets. Airtable is a “spreadsheet-database hybrid with features of a database but applied to a spreadsheet” according to Wikipedia. Nicole Dyer of Research Like a Pro (RLP) with FamilyLocket has shared terrific bases (templates) in the Airtable Universe. I developed my own adaptations to Nicole’s RLP with DNA Multiple Testers Base.

Below is a screenshot of the documentary research log I use based on Nicole’s template. I’ve grouped this log by surname (4th column), then sorted it by date of event (3rd column) then locality (5th column). Dates are written in YYYY-MM-DD format to sort the records (rows) by a field (column). Place names begin with the two-digit state abbreviation, followed by county, and town. This arrangement also supports sorting without creating multiple fields to sort. And if you are looking at column 8, yes, I do create the citations when I first look at the document. I have a citation template (also in Airtable).

Documentary Research Log in AirTable

Digital Filing

Every project has a folder on my drive which is backed up to Dropbox. The folder organization varies by project. The snapshot below is for my mysterious 2x-great grandmother, Mattie Childress. Each research question has a numbered file. “00-Mattie death date” and “01-Parents for Mattie” are examples. Nested within the folder are sub-folders for phases of research. “Archive” holds prior drafts and will be discarded at the end of a project. “Analysis” contains tables for census or timeline analysis. “Images” has screenshots of diagrams.

Digital Filing System

I’ve used Google Docs and Sheets and struggle to use the filing system in Google Drive. Many people use them to good results. Using Google docs, sheets and drive allows sharing through links. I get around this by sharing Dropbox folders for large files.

Naming conventions

File names for individual items (documents, images, spreadsheets) have evolved. There are two styles I use consistently: Name of document first or date first. When I am writing a report, the name of the document is written with underscores, then the date, always in YYYY-MM-DD format.

Childres_father_2022-01-31.docx

For sources (scans of originals, downloaded census, birth, marriage, death, etc.) I lead with the date, followed by the last name in caps, then location and type of record. I use dashes between elements of the date in YYYY-MM-DD format. This creates an instant timeline in my folders. Locations are organized from large geographic region to small.

1879-05-08_CHILDRESS_Bill_TN_Tipton_indictment_riot.jpeg

Report template

I set up the project report using a template and “write as I go.” Writing the report while I’m working supports the analysis process and I’m not faced with a blank page at the end. When working on client projects, writing-as-I-go also helps me stay within hourly limits for a project. The template, like naming conventions, has evolved over time. I use a Microsoft Word .dotx file which includes sample paragraphs I often need (such as explaining the usages of different types of DNA tests or how autosomal DNA is used to predict relationships).

Report template

I started a new project two weeks ago and set it up as described here. I can spend a few minutes or several hours researching knowing that I can focus on the research and analysis. And I’m enjoying the honeymoon!

Getting started with family history research

First, gather what you already know. This could include prior research by yourself or others, existing documents that you hold (marriages, birth certificates, cards, letters, newspaper clippings, family Bibles), and writing down what you and others know (paying attention to dates and places such as homes, schools, cemeteries, relocations).

As you gather information, collect details and note your sources. Genealogists use writing conventions, such as recording dates as 18 September 2019 (that way there is no confusion about which is the month and which is the year). Place names include as much detail as possible (such as Town, County, State) and are recorded as the place was named at the time of the event. For example, some of my ancestors lived in Thomaston, Maine which was in Lincoln County until 1860 when it became part of the newly-formed Knox County. So my ancestor Nathaniel Fales III was born 28 June 1785 in Thomaston, Lincoln County, Maine and died 24 Jan 1876 in Thomaston, Knox County, Maine. The Atlas of Historical Boundaries Project captures boundary changes for states and counties.

For each item of information, write down where you found it. The detail in the citation needs to be enough that anyone can locate that source. It could be “Floyd Workman, interview by Connie Davis, 2 September 2006, notes privately held by interviewer, [address for private use], Hope, British Columbia, 2022,” or “Cyrus Eaton, The History of Thomaston, Rockland, and South Thomaston, ME., 2 volumes, Hallowell: Masters, Smith, and Company, Printers, 1865, reprinted by Courier-Gazette, Inc., 1972, vol. 1, p. 26.” Citations usually appear as footnotes in genealogical writing so that they never become separated from the information they describe.

Citation in genealogy can be incredibly detailed, and the expert on citation is Elizabeth Shown Mills, author of Evidence Explained. Unless you are writing for publication, you won’t need to know all of the details of genealogical citation but do keep track of your sources! Genealogy software programs can capture this information for you. I use Reunion for Mac. All online genealogy websites can capture sources as well. Without being able to review the citations, it’s hard to evaluate the evidence.

What’s this about evidence? Family history may appear to have facts, such as where people were born and when, but each piece of information must be taken into consideration with other pieces of information. For example, on my grandparent’s marriage certificate my grandmother’s age is recorded as 20 and my grandfather’s age is recorded as 22.[1] Their birth certificates tell a different story. My grandmother was 20, as she was born on 24 October 1910 but my grandfather was 19.[2] My grandmother explained that she was embarrassed to be older than my grandfather so he lied about his age!

Second, be clear about your goal. What do you want to accomplish? If your goal is to build your family tree, consider that each of us have thirty-two 3x great-grandparents, and to build our tree back that far may require researching their siblings and many of our cousins. The best strategy is to start with yourself and work backwards. Fill in the details on key dates and places (birth, marriage, death). If you are interested in context and stories, research their education, occupations, military service, and relocations.

Write down a specific question you want to answer. It might be “Did my 6x great-grandfather Nathaniel Fales II born 25 October 1752 in Norwich, New London County, Connecticut Colony, British Colonial America, serve in the Revolutionary War?” or “When did my 2x great-grandfather, Samuel Dare, immigrate to the United States, eventually ending up in Deer Ridge, Lewis County,  Missouri, at the time of the 1860 census based on his stated birthplace of England?” A focused question will keep you on track and increase your chance of answering your question.

There are many websites that provide wonderful detail to guide you. One of the best is from the National Genealogical Society, How to Build a Family Tree.

Another great free source for all things family history is the FamilySearch Wiki.


[1] Fresno County, California, marriage certificate, Walton L. Davis-Edna L. Workman, 15 April 1931, George Brewster, Minister, Christian Church, Fresno.

[2] Missouri Department of Health, birth certificate, state file number 49675, (24 October 1910), Edna Leona Workman; Bureau of Vital Statistics, Jefferson; certified copy in researcher’s files.

California Department of Public Health, birth certificate, local registrar number 329, 15 June 1911, Walton Leslie Davis; Vital Statistics, Sacramento.