“Step 1: Gather family information. Start by asking family who your 20th-century ancestors were. Talking about family photos is a good way to jog relatives’ memories. Remember that more distant relatives may have knowledge that your immediate family has lost, so get in touch with aunts, uncles, and older cousins. Collect family documents that might provide additional information, like marriage certificates and funeral programs. If your family moved out of the South to the North or West, look through all records for clues pointing to the town or county they came from.
Step 2: Locate the family in census records. Use the information you gather about older relatives to locate them in census records. Start in the 1940 U.S. Federal Census and use new details you discover in that document to trace the family back through each census to 1870, noting new details each time to help you with your next search. Censuses indicate relationships to a head of household, providing names and details about each person living at a particular residence. Be aware of two potential problems: first, the 1890 census for almost all of the United States was destroyed, creating a 20-year gap between 1880 and 1900 that creates challenges for many researchers (but we have a solution for that, so read on); and second, the 1870 census is often the earliest census record that lists formerly enslaved African Americans by name. Prior to 1870, only free African Americans were listed by name on the census.”