Looking for a name in historical census records? Someone in your family tree or the subject of a research project? There's an easy way and a hard way. And only one is free, sort of.
Census "schedules" are what you're looking for. Schedules are the original survey forms enumerators wrote information on. You can see some in a standardized format here and copies of originals (mostly blank) here. For an index of questions asked on population schedules for all census years 1790 to 2000 visit here.
Census schedules become available 72 years after they were originally collected. That means that today the 1790 through 1930 censuses are available. In 2012, the 1940 schedules will be released.
The 1890 records are nearly completely missing, as is a chunk of the 1790 census.
The Free Way
The traditional way of finding names in the census is still the way a lot of people go, unfortunately. It not only involves a lot of effort, but it's hampered by a major limitation. Most major libraries have a microfilm set of census records. To use the microfilm, you have to know the addresses of the person you are looking for, especially if they lived in any sizeable area. This is because the names were recorded in the order in which people were visited by the enumerator. The enumerator walked up and down city blocks, and recorded names as he got them. Names are not listed alphabetically. Neither were addresses. With the address in hand, a researcher must consult maps to learn the page location of the record in question. Sound tough? It is.
Take a look at the guide to the National Archives microfilm here.
The Not Free Way
If you're not up to hunting through maps and battling the microfilm machine, there are two companies that digitized census records and put them online. At Ancestry.com and Genealogy.com you can search for people using name, location, age, sex, race, etc. Sound convenient? It is.
The Other Free Way
There are two ways to use Ancestor.com and Genealogy.com for free! They both offer free trials (be sure to cancel your account before you're charged). And if you happen to live near one of the regional National Archives offices, both sites can be accessed for free from onsite computers (which you may find few, old and slow).