How to Browse the Census by Location

Finding your ancestor in the census is a great way to extend the family tree, but what do you do when you just know he should be there, but he isn't turning up in your searches? When that happens, it's time to stop searching and start browsing old school style. Here's how to browse the census by location in both Ancestry and FamilySearch.

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The Truth About Ancestry’s Hints

Ancestry’s hints — those shaky leaves that pop up — can be useful to our genealogy research. However, there are some limits to them that can really trip up researchers. Here’s what you need to know to avoid the pitfalls of Ancestry’s hints.

Ancestry Does Not Give Hints From All Record Collections

As of 4 January 2017, Ancestry lists 32,795 collections in its Card Catalog. However, you won’t receive hints from all 32K+ collections. Per Ancestry's support article on hints:

"Not all databases are included in hints; hints are meant to provide basic information from our most-viewed records."​

So even if you "run out" of hints for someone, Ancestry could still have lots of records pertaining to that person; they just don't show up as hints. You'll have to do a search. 

Something else to remember: some collections on Ancestry are "image only," meaning that the images are there, but they have not yet been indexed. If it isn't index, it cannot show up as a hint (or in a search, for that matter). 

Hints Are Not Necessarily Correct

Here’s where labels can mess us up. When we think of a hint, we think of something factual that leads us to the right conclusion. Think about when a friend has teased you about getting you a gift that you can’t open yet.

Your friend: I got you a gift.

You: Really?! Tell me what it is!

Your friend: I’m not going to tell you, but I’ll give you a hint.

You’re expecting your friend to tell you something truthful about the present she got for you, not the present she got for one of her other friends. Unfortunately, Ancestry’s hints don’t always work that way.

Consider the hint I received for my 3rd-great-grandfather John Starkey:​

John Starkey 1850 census hint

However, I’ve already found my John Starkey in the 1850 census, not in Monongalia County, Virginia, but in Perry County, Ohio, where he had been living since the late 1820s. Yes, people can be listed on the census twice and I did look at the one in Monongalia County. The birthplace was correct, the age was approximately right, the wife’s name was correct, but the kids weren’t even close. Unless my John had a “second family” in a different state at the same time (and in a completely different place that I have ever seen him before), this is not my John Starkey.

The hints from other family trees definitely need to be reviewed for accuracy. Take them as clues. Don't just hit "accept" on everything you see. (In fact, I never hit "accept" based on a family tree. I'll look at the tree, make a few notes if something seems promising, but I don't accept the hint or attach it to my tree.)

You Won't See All Hints at Once

Ancestry doesn’t show all hints for all people all at once. It would be easy to be overwhelmed by hints if they did. (It can be overwhelming enough as it is!) If you aren’t seeing “new” hints for a part of the family you haven’t worked on in awhile, go do some activity in that part of the tree. Add some facts, attach a record — do something. That will tell Ancestry that your interest now is in that part of the family tree and will jumpstart the hinting for those people.

(If you feel overwhelmed by Ancestry's hints, check out my tips for how to use them without going crazy.)​

The Bottom Line

Ancestry’s hints can be useful. I’ve found numerous records by following them. However, hints are not the “end all and be all” of researching — not even researching on Ancestry. We can get better use out of them when we realize what their limitations are and work with them accordingly.

Ancestry's hints - those shaky leaves - have some limitations for genealogy research. Here are the limits and how to work around them.