What’s a genealogist to do? First, take a deep breath and let it out. Slowly. Sure, those pre-1850 censuses are more difficult to figure out than their later counterparts, but they’re far from impossible. With our 10 strategies, you can milk those tick marks to find your ancestors in early censuses.
1. Profile your family.
Estimating how your family looked during early, head-of-household-only censuses is essential to finding their record. Here’s how I profiled my Samuel Stockwell family for my 1840 census search.
1. First, I identified my family in the 1850 census: Samuel Stockwell, age 50, and his wife Content, 46, live in Monroe, Franklin County, Mass. Their children Emery, 17, and Sarah, 14, were born in Vermont. Their other children, Mary, 11, Lucy, 9, and Ellen, 7, were born in Massachusetts.
2. I filled out an 1840 census tracker, subtracting 10 years from each person’s age (Ellen and Lucy weren’t yet born). I estimated the household to look like this:
- free white males 5 and under 10: one (Emery)
- free white males 40 and under 50: one (Samuel)
- free white females under 5: two (Mary and Sarah)
- free white females 40 and under 50: one (Content)
3. I started my census search. Because Mary was born in Massachusetts about 1839, I looked for the family there in 1840. I found a Samuel Stockwell household in Monroe that looked promising, but it did have some discrepancies. Here’s what the return shows:
- free white males 5 and under 10: two
- free white males 10 and under 15: one
- free white males 40 and under 50: one
- free white females under 5: two
- free white female 15 and under 20: one
- free white females 30 and under 39: oneThe total number of family members in this listing is eight—six children and two adults. There’s an extra 5-to-9 year-old-boy, 10-to-14 year-old boy and 15-to-20 year-old girl.
Despite the extra individuals, I won’t automatically throw the match out the window: The family could have taken in nieces and nephews, or a child alive in 1940 might have succumbed to illness before 1850. An older offspring could have married and left home. I need to do some further digging into town and vital records for this Stockwell family in search of the identities of the other members of this household.
The census also indicates one of the eight is “insane or idiot at private charge.” It wasn’t necessarily a family member: In New England at the time, towns would pay families to take care of individuals in need of help.
Be somewhat flexible about how your family profile fits matches to your census search. A number of circumstances can change how your family looks from census to census: Family members might die or children grow up and move out, boarders or relatives might move in, and ages might be recorded incorrectly (more on this next). You may need to save several prospective matches and weed some out as you do more research.
2. Be age-conscious.
3. Search smart.
FamilySearch.org has indexes to censuses from 1790 to 1840. You can view the head-of-household’s name and place of residence. The index links to the records on Ancestry.com, where you must be a subscriber to view them. (Try your search at a library that offers the free Ancestry Library Edition.)
4. Check name variants.
Just as you would for later censuses, search for variations of your ancestor’s name. A Joseph Henry might have gone by Henry or J.H., so check middle names and initials. The census taker or an indexer could have misinterpreted the name, leading to some strange spellings. In Ancestry.com’s 1830 census collection, Agrippa Hull of Stockbridge, Mass., was indexed as Whippy Heel. If you find such a transcription an error on Ancestry.com, you can click on “annotate this record” and add the correction. The correction will become searchable as an alternate transcription for the record, making the record easier for other researchers to find.
5. Know your boundaries.
You can trace these geographical changes using the Newberry Library’s Atlas of Historical County Boundaries. If you don’t find your ancestor by searching in his usual place of residence, try broadening your search to a neighboring county or state—or altogether eliminating a place from your search terms.
6. Have a way with women.
If you’re searching for a woman, you might have a hard time: Unless she was the head of a household—say, she was widowed and lived on her own—she won’t be enumerated by name. Make a list of all the men in her life at the time and run searches for them: father, husband, sons, sons-in-law, brother, brothers-in-law, neighbors.
7. Get out your ruler.
In these early censuses, it’s easy to misread the tick marks in the columns. Until 1830, enumerators had no standardized forms. Instead, they would create their own. These handwritten sheets might lack lines dividing the rows of families, so the enumerator’s markings could appear to belong with a family above or below yours. Try printing the return and penciling in your own dividing lines between rows of tick marks. Once you figure out which row is your family’s, mark it with a highlighter. Not all of the pre-1850 censuses include column titles, either—another reason our downloadable census forms are handy.
8. Turn the pages.
9. Find substitutes.
In some cases, genealogists have “re-created” missing census records using state enumerations and tax records. One example is the 1790 and 1800 census reconstructions, created from tax lists, at Binns Genealogy. Also look for books such as The Reconstructed 1790 Census of Georgia: Substitutes for Georgia’s Lost 1790 by Marie De Lamar and Eisabeth Rothstein (Clearfield). Run a web search on the place and census substitute to find websites and books with these records.
10. Look for bonus clues.
Pre-1850 censuses are short on the details we appreciate in later enumerations, but they do contain clues, including:
- In the 1820 census, enumerators noted how many in a household were engaged in occupations involving agriculture, manufacturing and commerce.
- In 1820 and 1830, a column tells you how many in the household were “foreigners not naturalized.”
- The government began collecting social statistics with the 1830 census. You’ll see whether any white members of a household were blind or deaf and “dumb.”
- The 1840 census adds “insane” and “idiotic” to the above categories.
- Students in a household were counted in 1840, as were white males over age 21 who couldn’t read and write.
- More employment data came with the 1840 census, when enumerators counted those in mining; agriculture; commerce; manufacturing and trade; ocean navigation; canal, lake and river navigation; or the “learned professions.”
- The 1840 census lists names and ages of people collecting military pensions, even if they weren’t head of a household.
Don’t be intimidated by those pre-1850 censuses. Just take a deep breath, roll up your sleeves and start employing these 10 strategies. You may need a little more elbow grease, but finding your family will be worth the extra effort.
Introducing the census to kids
Tips for searching censuses online
Pre-1850 censuses video class
101 Brick Wall Busters
Special censuses guide digital download