Four Ways to Track People Thru the 20th Century

Tips on how to find and track people in the U.S. census for genealogists and family historians.

Four Ways to Track People Thru the 20th Century
Photo by Ryoji Iwata / Unsplash

In Podcast Episode 40: Success with 20th Century Census Records, I found three different spellings for John Curry in three censuses. Surprising because Curry is only five letters long!

What did I use instead of his name to help track him through the census? What identifiers told me it it was the right John Curry each time? Here’s the four things I used:


Starting with the location of my person on his death certificate, I selected from the search results, persons closest to that location. I did not look at people outside of the county where he last lived. I started my search with a narrow focus.

Most 20th century death certificates have a street, town, municipality, and county on them. Use that information on the death certificate to narrow the search on census locations.

The Family Unit

This might seem way too obvious, but be sure to take note of a person’s entire household unit. People rarely lived alone through out their entire adulthood. Who are the spouse and children? Is there extended family or boarders living in the home? If someone remains single through adulthood, they could be living with a sibling, parent, or cousin. Everyone in that household matters while searching.


With each newer census, the description of the occupation became more detailed. To see how the questions asked each year, see this summary at the U.S. Census Bureau. For example, what started as “Laborer” became “Crane Operator” or “Steam Shoveler” in my search of John Curry. Many households only had one employed adult prior to 1940, so this technique of tracking occupation is best used in conjunction with the family unit. An employed person’s occupation can also be correlated to their death certificate.

English Literacy

America welcomed millions of non-English speaking immigrants until 1920. A regular part of the census was tracking who could read and write in English. Since an adult’s literacy in English usually didn’t change over their lifetime, it can be used to identify people.

What traits of your ancestors do you track through the 20th century censuses? You can get ideas for additional items through the U.S. Census Bureau’s summary list of questions by census available here.

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