When I started recording my tree I recorded the fact that an ancestor was present in census as such. This produced, as expected, a census (CENS) record in my GEDCOM.

After working with my tree on Ancestry for a while I decided to download the tree as a GEDCOM, only to find that all census references I had added were recorded as residence (RESI) records with a reference to the census as a source.

Is there a 'right' way to record a census event? Should it use a census record or a residence record?

  • Thanks for an interesting discussion. IF, for example, ancestry.com's gedcom feature makes it suited to be a "master data repository" for your genealogical information, can anyone suggest a robust alternative? s a programmer I love using git to manage my source code. I'd love to have asimilar tool for my geenalogical database.
    – peterbooth
    Commented Oct 15, 2014 at 11:11
  • What a drag. Thanks for the posts. I created a small tree on Ancestry for a friend. I went to download a gedcom to make it pretty with RootsMagic. All the census facts were residence. Thanks for the clue, I am doing a search for RESI and replace CENS with a text editor, one at a time. A mere 400 RESI entries :) Many years ago, I created a "for public" use versions of several of my databases with RootsMagic (been using that since DOS). I uploaded these special versions into Ancestry. From that point on I manually make entries into RootsMagic from Ancestry info. I don't mind sharing but I am ver
    – user2642
    Commented Dec 6, 2014 at 15:49

8 Answers 8


I don't know the actual reason for the switch over but this is entirely wrong and shouldn't have happened.

A census is - as you say - an "event". It has both a place and a date associated with it. It should, therefore, be recorded as an event.

To use the census address as a residential address is an error because many people were not present at their normal residental address on census night. They may have been visiting, lodging, working, travelling, etc.

I don't use Ancestry's trees. Is this reproducible? I'm wondering why no one else has complained about it. Can you add precise details of how you added the census events to your tree?

  • 1
    It's reproducible Tony - I loaded a GEDCOM to Ancestry and then downloaded it. GIGO. As in - GEDCOM In, Garbage Out. OK, that's pushing it a bit - but not a lot. I guess Ancestry are more interested in exchange directly to FTM. Whether that's similarly affected, I don't know.
    – AdrianB38
    Commented Nov 16, 2012 at 17:54
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    Just checking up again on my own Ancestry tree. If I try to attach a Census Record from Ancestry to a person, it offers to add or update Name, Birth, Residence - no sign of a Census, even though it's a type of Event that the Ancestry tree supports.
    – AdrianB38
    Commented Nov 16, 2012 at 18:00
  • Still the same now. Only residence facts. Commented Feb 7, 2019 at 14:41

There are two elements to your question and they need to be dealt with separately.

Ancestry changed your GEDCOM

And almost any other application package would have done so, too. Not always in the same way and sometimes you may not notice the change, but it will happen.

GEDCOM is now an aging standard and software developers have added their own extensions and enhancements. Moving a file from one package to another leads to "approximations" and "compromises" as they push oval pegs into round holes.

The way to avoid difficulties is to select your preferred software (preferably on your own computer, not web-based) in which all changes are made in native file format and DO NOT EVER IMPORT into that application. Create new sources, events and citations from scratch in that application to match your preferred methods.

When you want to use another application for a particular purpose, by all means export a GEDCOM but DO NOT BRING IT BACK. Any data file export should be regarded as disposable.

What should you do with the changes you made while on-line after importing the data? Open your main application and redo them there! And resolve not to be seduced by waggling green leaves again.

How should you use a Census record?

You should consistently apply a system that makes sense to you and to those with whom you plan to share.

For me, that means that I use a census return as a source of information concerning residence, occupation, education, religion, marital status and whatever else is available in particular jurisdictions at a given point in time. I acknowledge that a census "has both a place and a date associated with it" but so does the publication of an edition of The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper from which I might obtain some of the same information about an ancestor.

For my purposes, the decennial census is no more an event in the life of my family than a triennial election. Of course I use the information recorded in the electoral roll; but unless 3xgreat grandfather was a candidate, the election was not an event to be recorded.

On the other hand, if you are part of a genealogical community that exchanges information on a regular basis, then you need to find their conventions and follow them. It is quite possible that you will find groups prepared to argue for each approach with equal fervour. The right way is the one that suits your needs.

  • 1
    Interesting - "the decennial census is no more an event in the life of my family than a triennial election". I do record the census as an event in my database but whenever I produce reports for anyone, I exclude it as (to me) what matters is what it tells us, not the fact of its occurrence - i.e. I agree with you as far as reports go. I do record its occurrence but only to be able to track whether or not I've found it and used it.
    – AdrianB38
    Commented Nov 17, 2012 at 10:08

What has to be understood is that the Ancestry Member Tree feature is a display application and not really a genealogy program. Thus the GEDCOM it generates for download is a non-standard 'flavor' of GEDCOM.

When saving a census document to a Member Tree, it is saved as a Residence event.

If you want a Census Event, you must create it manually and then save the census document as a source for that census event.


The fact that Ancestry generates a Residence when downloading a GEDCOM shows that Ancestry and GEDCOM have a nodding acquaintance but are not intimate friends, one might say.

There is a Census event in GEDCOM, therefore the "expectation" is, I suggest that Census is the one to use. However, what you also add alongside the Census event is a bit more of a moot point.

Some will contend that it is not correct to a Residence event for UK censuses, because UK censuses only describe where someone is on the night of the census, not where they are resident. Given that standard descriptions of lodger, boarder and visitor are used for the relationship to the head-of-house, I think the chances of people without those descriptions not being resident is slim, so I add a separate residence to each person.

I'll also add occupation attributes, and add the census to the birth event as a secondary source of evidence for that.

  • 1
    You can't always rely on the 'role' to distinguish people not normally resident at the same address Adrian. I have seen household returns where someone is simply recorded as, say, 'son' but I know from other records that they lived nearby but not at that particular household.
    – ACProctor
    Commented Nov 16, 2012 at 18:02
  • I've come across instances where the same people are listed in multiple census records, once for the birth family, and once for (presumably) the foster family. Commented Nov 16, 2012 at 21:59
  • 1
    Tony - you're right that you can't always rely on that role. And equally, we know you can't even rely on a nephew being a nephew and not a son they're trying to hide, or similar. My own decision was that I'd believe the role unless I found evidence to the contrary - I acknowledge that there's a risk. Ironically, I've just been working on my 4G grandmother who, on re-marriage, claimed that she was resident in Madeley, Staffs, when it's clear she was still living 9m away in Haslington, Cheshire. She was the older woman, you see... So you can't always believe them even when they're explicit!
    – AdrianB38
    Commented Nov 16, 2012 at 22:47
  • Gene - I find multiple listings more in the US, where the concept of "usual residence" seems to be, shall we say, open to interpretation. And with US censuses taking several days to compile, all sorts of possibilities arise. In the UK, the census gets done in 1 day for exactly where you are. Even so, double reports exist - often for people on overnight journeys who get recorded at both ends. Usually though, one or both ends are clearly hotels, barracks, etc. Usually.
    – AdrianB38
    Commented Nov 16, 2012 at 22:53


I agree that Residence should be used when something other than a census places the person at a particular place at a particular time - directories, yearbooks, military information, etc. Census should be used when the information comes directly from a census.

After exporting a GEDCOM file from either Ancestry.com or Family Tree Maker, but BEFORE importing it into RootsMagic, open the GEDCOM in a word processor such as WORDPAD. Do a Search and Replace on the file searching for RESI and Replacing it with CENS. Always do NEXT-REPLACE, never REPLACE ALL. This allows you to only change the field for a true Census, while skipping those for a true Residence.

Close and save the file as a text file and make sure the file extension is .ged, not .txt. Import it into a blank RootsMagic file. Go to Lists - Fact Type and select Census. Select Edit and turn on Use Description Field. The Description Field shows you the marital status and relationship to head of household information. This shows up in the information displayed when looking at the individual in RootsMagic, but not in the Census "sentence" that displays in a Narrative Report. If you want it to show up in reports, edit the Census Fact sentence template to include the Description Field.


My preference is to list a census event as a census and not as a residence. One of the reasons I was prompted to make that decision is that early in my research, I collected several census records from England in which someone was described as 'visitor'. To me "border" or "lodger" implies a residence, however temporary. But when I see a granddaughter described as a 'visitor', that suggests that someone was there on Census day, but isn't necessarily a permanent resident. Given that the census is likely to be less accurate than something like a vital record, and you can't depend on a census to support that level of fussiness, it seems easier to record the census for what it is -- a census -- rather than trying to hang a proof on the data for a single day/night.

The instructions for the US Federal Censuses may say that the person is supposed to be listed at their usual residence, but as a practical matter, it made more sense to follow as I had started with the Census records in England and record the census as a census. Doing so makes it easier for utilities and queries to review your file and check that you have collected all the possible census years for a person's lifetime.

I can always add a residence event with the census as a source later, if I have other evidence to support that fact.

On Ancestry's new User Interface ("New Ancestry", introduced in 2015), you can change these residence 'facts' to a Census fact in the Lifestory view, but as far as I can see, it doesn't change the underlying GEDCOM. The Census still appears as a Residence in the Facts view. However, with the new interface, it is much easier to create a new Census event and attach the appropriate Census to it, as long as the census has already been attached to the person in the tree.

Disclaimer: I do use 'Residence' as a placeholder for dates where a record indicates a person is still alive but no place of residence is indicated (e.g. if someone is listed as a survivor in a sibling's obituary).

  • 1
    I too document the census event, but my focus is less on the location and more on who is in the household and the documented relationships (for those censuses that include that information). The 1910 U.S. census is especially rich in households with boarders who come from the same region as the landlord and are often also related. I also note when an expected family member is missing and have to determine if they are omitted or can be found elsehwere -- the census event becomes a placeholder for those determinations.
    – bgwiehle
    Commented Jan 12, 2016 at 18:26

No. There is no "right" way to handle a census record. Your first problem is reliance on GEDCOM, but that is a separate topic. The second is that one package is modifying your data. Its your data, and it should be kept the way you entered it, even if you do it "wrong".

Linkage based packages handle this poorly. Tony Proctor has, in his Parallax View blog, a lot of detailed postings on the errors.

The more important factor is that different countries tell their census enumerators different rules. (for example, a lot of English census records record where someone slept the night of the census, while US census want where you "reside".) Plus the enumerators may make different decisions not following the rules.

The fact that you know is: in the Year XYZ Census of country ABC recorded the following people at this address. This does not mean that they live there, or that the names, ages, birthplaces, etc are actually correct facts. The only fact is that the census record exists. (plus or minus transcription errors, etc.)


Seems to me that for RESI (Residence), it would NOT be appropriate to use census information since there is a SPECIFIC place for census information. However, as for RESI, methinks other events can be recorded like election lists, phone book entries.... etc.....

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