Are you using a map when you search the census for your ancestor? If you don’t have appropriate, contemporary to your census problem year maps, you could easily be making mistakes or looking in places that are not quite right.
Remember–census relationships are always given with respect to the head of household. In some cases, the wife may not be the mother of all the children. And “children” of the head of household may actually be step-children.
Just remember that in pre-1850 United States census records the oldest person might not necessarily be the head of the household. If a grandparent or parent is living with someone, they might be the oldest person enumerated while the person named as the head of the household is actually someone younger.
I think that’s the case with a family in Ohio that I’m working on for an issue of Casefile Clues.
Are you using an 1820 census enumeration where the names appear to be listed in roughly alphabetical order?
Census takers and some tax collectors, in an attempt to be helpful, roughly sorted names by the first letter of the last name. The problem for genealogists is that this strips the record of all sense of neighborhood. Keep this in mind when you think all the “B”s in an area lived together. No group of people are that organized.
Many states took state censuses at some point in their history. Consider expanding your search of census records beyond federal census records. State censuses were often taken in off census years, that is in years not ending in a “0.”
With more and more records being indexed, it is tempting for some to quit searching when the index fails. Keep in mind that there are times where manual searching of a record is necessary. Indexes are not perfect and sometimes writing is extremely difficult to read.
The census is a good example. If you know where your ancestor lived and the index does not quickly locate him, search manually. If the relative was in a rural area, it may not take very long to page through a township or two in an attempt to find him. And in searching page by page, you may find other relatives in the process. In urban areas, you may be able to pinpoint your relative’s location down to a handful of enumeration districts. And learning more about where your ancestor lived and tracking his residences may help you research more than just locating him in the census.
Those of us who researched in the days before census indexes relied on manual searches when we first started.
If you are looking for someone in the census and cannot find them, try reversing the first and last name. Perhaps the census taker did not know which name was the first name and which name was the last name. This problem can be compounded if the names are in a foreign language.
Some census takers were plain lazy, some couldn’t spell, and some didn’t care.
After you have exhausted all the variations on your ancestor’s first and middle names, consider that they might have been enumerated with just their initials. Or perhaps their first initial and their middle name spelled out. I have seen entire townships where no one apparently had a first name and everyone was named with their initials. I have seen locations where census takers used initials for non-English names instead of trying to spell them correctly.
Maybe your ancestor was enumerated as J. Smith in the 1860 census. Now there’s a real problem.