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How can I find people in the 1950 US Federal Census, before the index is created, or afterwards if I can't find them via the index?

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Disclaimer: Getting ready for the 1950 Census is a popular topic right now, and I have watched several different presentations and read many articles on the subject while preparing for my own research. I am indebted to Stephen P. Morse, Joel D. Weintraub, Claire Kluskens, Michael John Neill, Alison DePrey Singleton, Thomas MacEntee and others cited in the resource list for the information in this answer. I have written this answer from scratch, to avoid copying material. Any mistakes are my own.

More information will be added to this answer after the census is released.

Census Timeline

The US Federal Census is under a 72-year privacy rule. Census day in 1950 was 1 April; the release date is 1 Apr 2022.

NARA's press release 1950 Census Release Will Offer Enhanced Digital Access, Public Collaboration Opportunity says:

The new website will include a name search function powered by an Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning (AI/ML) and Optical Character Recognition (OCR) technology tool. This is important for genealogists and other researchers who rely on census records for new information about the nation’s past.

“The OCR being used to transcribe the handwritten names from the census rolls is about as good as the human eye,” said Project Management Director Rodney Payne. “Some of the pages are legible, and others are difficult to decipher. So, the National Archives developed a transcription tool to enable users to submit name updates. This will allow other users to find specific names more easily, and it provides an opportunity for the public to help the agency share these records with the world.”

National Archives officials are encouraging interested members of the public to use the transcription tool and assist the agency to make the records as accurate as possible.

Despite all these efforts, there may be cases where you can't find your family via searching in the index. Now what?

Write as you go

Before you begin your search, start a research journal or log (or both) and collect information about where your family of interest might have been in 1950. Use home sources, city directories, historical newspapers, or any other source that might have a street address. The resources list at the bottom of this answer has a link to Thomas MacEntee's spreadsheet, which he has generously shared. If you share this template with others, please credit him as the source. His spreadsheet is person-first, starting with the people you want to find in the census.

My spreadsheet is location first, using the style of a FamilySearch place search, with state, county, town, ED, followed by the name of the people I want to find. Use what approach seems best for your own workflow.

Be careful when using spreadsheets as logs!

When you use a spreadsheet for a research log or a flat-file database, always sort on a copy. This prevents you from wrecking your original worksheet if you don't have all the fields selected.

Making a list, checking it twice

As you go through your tree, setting up a tracking log for the people you want to find in the 1950 Census, your people will fall into different categories.

  1. People deceased before Census Day are not likely to be recorded in the census. (A good portion of my census prep so far has been looking for obituaries as well as 1950 Census addresses, to find out who might be living on 1 Apr 1950.)
  2. People for whom you have a street address (for large cities) or a known rural location, a location overseas, an institutional location, etc.
  3. People whose whereabouts you don't know, for whom more research is needed.

Use whatever method works for you to make a list of the people you want to track from your tree. In Family Historian, for instance, a user might create two Named Lists, one for People to Find and one for Need 1950 Address, and add users to whichever list is appropriate, then use the People to Find list to populate a worksheet. Users of Ancestry online trees could make use of Ancestry's MyTreeTags(TM).

It is much easier to set up your tracking sheet in advance and fill in the information as you find it, instead of filling in the entire line on the tracking sheet at once. Whether you choose a spreadsheet or a journal or both, keep it simple and use what works for you. The best system is the one you will actually use.

Map the Neighborhood

Once you have a street address, find the corresponding Enumeration District (ED) for that address. Stephen P. Morse's site One-Step Webpages. has tools to help you access ED maps via the National Archives catalog. There is a choice to use the viewer in the NARA catalog (quick, lower-resolution), or to download your own copies of the maps (higher resolution, very slow).

For detailed maps, search the name of the town and the keyword "GIS", or check the town's tax assessor's office, to see if they have an online property viewer. Some systems have a feature where you can download beautifully-detailed block maps showing the footprint of the buildings on each property. I find it easier to have a separate block map to consult while using Google Street View. If you like to mark up paper, these smaller maps are ideal because they are desgined to be printed on one sheet of paper.

Ancestry has recently added a Beta 1950 Census district finder which allows users to search by a place (e.g. an address or city) and get a link to map that can be shared.

Using the One-Step Web tools

If you are completely unfamiliar with using Morse's One-Step webpages, I highly recommend taking the 1950 Tutorial Quiz, which walks you through the process of finding people in the census, depending on whether they live in a large urban area or a rural area, lived overseas, or were in an institution. Once you are more familiar with the process, you can skip directly to using the Unified 1880-1850 ED Finder to get the ED. Make sure that 1950 is selected in the drop-down menu at the top of the page, since the EDs for each census are not equivalent. Record the EDs you find on your tracking sheet.

But I have multiple EDs, what now?

In urban areas, the ED finder asks you to choose the four cross-streets and back streets that define the area around the address you're looking at. For some results, you may get multiple EDs -- the street your house is in may be the border of the district. Use the One-Step Tool for 1880-1950 ED Descriptions (transcribed): Obtaining 1880 to 1950 ED Descriptions in One Step or the tool 1940-1950 ED Descriptions (microfilm): Viewing 1940 and 1950 ED Descriptions on T1224 Microfilm in One Step if you prefer to see the original descriptions on NARA microfilm.

Numerical street listings in City Directories may be especially helpful when you need to figure out what side of the street your family lived on.

You may find it easier to copy the descriptions for the EDs you want into your tracking log or journal, or you may want to leave them out to keep your log simple and easy to use. Use the system that works for you.

Did your family members live or serve in overseas in the military?

Some schedules exist for people living in overseas possessions of the United States and for military personnel stationed overseas. Claire Kluskens posted an overview of census enumeration for all census decades as part of her series on History Hub. See Census Enumeration of U.S. Civilians and Military Personnel Overseas, 1790–1950 for details, as well as other articles on the Panama Canal Zone, Guam, etc. Read the enumerator instructions carefully to understand how your person of interest was supposed to be enumerated (or not).

Once the Census Goes Live

Once the census is released, links to view the census itself will go live at NARA's 1950 Census site and on the One-Step Webpages. See The 1950 Census Website: Design, Development, & Features to Expect (2022 March 30) by Michael L. Knight for a sneak peek at NARA's 1950 Census website.

Users can also sign up via the Citizen Archivist dashboard to help NARA refine the draft name index once the site is live. We will be able to download individual pages, or do bulk downloads (by ED, state, etc.) through the Amazon Web Services' (AWS) Registry of Open Data.

Large websites such as Ancestry, My Heritage, and FamilySearch will are likely to create their own indexes, since NARA's draft AI/OCR index will not be available for download. They will not have access to the images in advance, so it may take some time for the rollout to be complete. (During the February "What's New" video, Crista Cowan said that Ancestry's index will be produced in collaboration with FamilySearch.)

For more details, see the FamilySearch Newsroom article 1950 US Census: The Next Big Thing in Family History and the RootsTech Expo Hall booth from their 1950 Census project.

Website links:

When all else fails

Read the instructions so that you understand how people were supposed to be enumerated.

News and Press Releases

Resources from the US National Archives (NARA) and NARA staff

Resources from the US Census Bureau

Tools and information from One-Step Web Pages / JDW Talks

Selected links from Stephen P. Morse's One-Step Webpages, plus a link to Joel D. Weintraub's YouTube channel. Visit the site to read the FAQs and to get access to more tools, such as big-city street finders.

Resources from Genealogy Bargains

Handouts and tracking sheet template by Thomas MacEntee. Shared with permission, under the following conditions: share the handout in its entirety with the copyright notices intact. (Don't pass off other genealogists' work as your own.)

The first two links were shared during his presentation hosted by the Southern California Genealogical Society on December 15, 2021. The third link is to his master list of handouts at his site Genealogy Bargains.

More Templates etc.

Further reading and viewing:

Final Note:

Sample Citation by Claire Kluskens from NARA's History Hub: How do you cite the 1950 census?

Albert H. Bond, Line 1, Sheet 1, Enumeration District 4-83, Morgan Township, Ashtabula County, Ohio; Seventeenth Census of the United States, 1950; Record Group 29, Records of the Bureau of the Census; National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC, downloaded from https://1950census.archives.gov/ on [date].

Once you have found your people, consider leaving a transcription of their names using NARA's Transcription tool.

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  • Thanks, lots of reading to do here. But what I was wondering about was the impact of the Census bureaus efforts to avoid disclosure of personal information and how that would affect the population schedules that we are accustomed to seeing? Any resources on this?
    – BobE
    Jan 7, 2022 at 19:14
  • @BobE, the rule in the USA is that the census records become available after 72 years. There are no efforts (unlike the 1939 National Registration in England and Wales) to redact the information of possibly living people.
    – Jan Murphy
    Jan 7, 2022 at 21:57
  • see this Q&A in politics Stack: politics.stackexchange.com/questions/70105/… ... I was not aware that the US Census has over the past years intentionally used methods to "avoid disclosure".
    – BobE
    Jan 8, 2022 at 4:06
  • @BobE Have you followed the links in the Q/A you just cited? census.gov/library/visualizations/2019/comm/… It's a good question, go out and explore! (I am a bit surprised by some of the info in that Q/A because my undrstanding was that Census tracts are supposed to be roughly the same population size.)
    – Jan Murphy
    Jan 8, 2022 at 20:51
  • @BobE the TL;dr may be that it doesn't matter to us as Family Historians. The kind of data manipulation they're talking about is at the population studies / statistical level. Once the census records are open because the 72-year rule has been met, we see the raw data. The disclosure avoidance talked about in that Q/A is about protecting the bulk statistical data from revealing things while the records are closed (i.e. before the 72 years have passed)
    – Jan Murphy
    Jan 8, 2022 at 20:53

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