Accessing the new Census data

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Last month we celebrated the release of the 1940 U.S. Census online. Well I did. I do mix a fine Manhattan if I do say so myself!

It’s been a month and not much has changed. The problem is that the government releases all the census images at the same time, but no one had a chance to index the names so we can search. Since there are 132 million people in the census, it’s taking quite a while to get the indexing done, In fact, as of this writing, only Delaware and Nevada have been indexed complete. So if you had family living there in 1940, you can just type a name and search for them.

But what about the 131,620,000 others? What about Chicago? Never fear.

First of all, there is a volunteer indexing effort that has been going on since the census went online on April 2. You can join that effort and speed things along by visiting and installing a program on your computer to help you index.

Since April 5, all images for the state of Illinois have been on-line and can be looked at. Since you cannot search by name until the index is complete, how do we look for anyone? You need to know the address where someone lived as of April 1940. Knowing the right neighborhood is good, but you may have to search a lot of pages to find them.

A number of excellent tools have been created to help narrow down the millions of pages of census sheets to your block. There are three web sites that allow you to look at the census pages:, and Each of these has tools to allow you to narrow the census pages down to an enumeration district. It’s a geographical boundary, like a voting precinct.

There are three ways to look up the right enumeration district (known as ED). One method will have you search for rural areas (“standard browse”) and one will search by individual street name in urban areas (“cross streets”). A third method will ask you for the ED from the 1930 census and it will give you one or more EDs for the same location in 1940. Most of us don’t know the 1930 ED unless we have the census printout in front of us. Choose the method that seems to make the most sense. Obviously, if you’re looking for someone in Chicago, choose the method that uses cross streets.

Each site will ask you to first select the state. Obviously, if you have no idea what state your relative lived in as of April 1940, you may need to either find documents from that era with an address on it, or just wait for the index. But let’s say for the sake of argument that we know it is Illinois. Pick Illinois from the list of states. Now it will ask you for a smaller jurisdiction.

It may ask for a county or a city. If you know the family lived in a specific city (Chicago, Harvey, Evergreen Park etc.) you should pick the city. If all it gives you is the county, select the right county (Cook, of course, for Chicago).

If you selected a city, it should set up a drop-down list of every street in that city. (Yes, the list for Chicago is huge! Please be patient.) You should select the street they lived on first. So let’s just say we picked Grand Ave W. (This means West Grand Ave.)

At this point, a list of EDs may be on the screen in blue, and you can click on any of them to get to the 15-40 pages of census for that district. However, you might be searching the length and breadth of a long street. You should continue to narrow this down by choosing a cross street.

Now another list of streets will develop, including only the streets that intersect with Grand Avenue. Since Grand runs on a diagonal from Western Ave. all the way out to the far western suburbs, it intersects a lot of streets. But we happen to be looking for 2136 W. Grand Ave. If you’re not sure what the cross street is, you should look on a current Google or MapQuest map. In this case, the 2100 block of Grand Ave is between Hoyne and Leavitt. So you can pick either of these streets as your first cross street.

You may now be asked to select another cross street. Go ahead and pick the other one (Hoyne or Leavitt) and you should have narrowed your ED list to only one or two.

Click on the ED and your first census page will load. You should see a set of numbers toward the top in the middle, telling you that you are on page 1 of 19, let’s say. There should be two little arrows to let you navigate forward or back. There are 40 names on each page. You can now search using one of two methods. You can just read the surnames on the page and look for the right family. You can also search the left column of the page and look for the right street name. If the street name is not the right one, you can skip that entire page and go to the next page. Each page can be viewed with tools on the screen. One tool will zoom the page in or out. One will move it left or right. Just play with these tools to get familiar with them.

After talking to my parents to determine where they and their parents and grandparents lived, I found all my living ancestors (as of 1940) just using the locations and enumeration districts. See what you can find.

Feel free to e-mail me with questions at

About Dan Niemiec

Dan Niemiec has been the genealogy columnist for Fra Noi since 2004. For the past 25 years, he has researched his genealogy back 17 generations, plus tracing descendants of his ancestors, yielding 74,000 relatives. His major focus is on civil and church records in Italy, Chicago vital records, Chicago Catholic records and most major genealogy web sites. He has given dozens of presentations to many local and some national genealogy societies on topics such as cemetery research, Catholic records, Italian records, Ellis Island and newspaper research, among others.

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