How to Research Pre-1850 Censuses

By James M. Beidler

When you embarked on your genealogical journey, you probably started with the 1930 US census—or the latest federal census schedule available to you at the time—having heard census records are treasure troves of ancestral information. And after becoming immersed in the wealth of data that census schedules’ 30-something questions provide, you remembered an ancestor whose existence had already been proven back to the late 1700s. So you went to the 1790 census, the first one taken by our young nation—figuring that it probably wouldn’t have as much detail as its counterpart 140 years later, but it would at least give you some names.

But then you learned the cold, hard truth: That census names only heads of household. It breaks down the rest of the population into the number of males over 16, males under 16, females and “other” people, such as slaves. As a matter of fact, all the census enumerations before 1850 name heads of household only.

Does this mean you should forget about those early censuses and skip straight for 1850? Or is it time to move on to another record group entirely? Well, no, it’s time to learn some strategies for using those pre-1850 censuses in conjunction with other records. Doing so will yield useful information—more than you ever thought you’d get from one name and a line of tick marks denoting other household members.

1. Learn head-count history.

Let’s start with a census history lesson. The first thing to know is that the US Constitution mandates census taking: A portion of Article I, Section 2 requires an “actual enumeration” of all the people every 10 years. Of course, the constitutional mandate wasn’t intended to help genealogists (though it surely has); what the founding fathers had in mind was a vehicle for fairly apportioning the House of Representatives among the states.

The official census day for the first four censuses (1790 through 1820) was the first Monday in August. For the rest of the head-of-household census era (and through 1900), June 1 was the big day. This is important because census takers were supposed to pretend time stood still. In other words, people born after census day shouldn’t have been counted, and those who died after census day (but before the enumerator came to the door) should have been treated as living. As with most of the census “rules,” this one wasn’t always followed—but at least you know the theory.

The age groups became more sophisticated with nearly every census. By 1800, the schedules graduated to splitting males and females into five age ranges—from “under 10” years to “of 45 and upward.” The government used the same scheme for the 1810 census.

A sixth, overlapping age range, “at least 16 but under 18 years,” was added in 1820. Teenagers who fit in that category also got listed in the 16 to 26 category that carried over from 1810.

The 1830 and 1840 enumerations divided each gender into 13 age groups, including “under 5,” “5 and under 10,” “20 and under 30” and “100 and upward.” The 1820, 1830 and 1840 censuses also include separate categories by age group for slaves and “free colored persons.”

Don’t stress out about finding ancestors in early, head-of-household-only censuses. These tricks will help you transform those tick marks into ancestral families.

You can use these age-range groups to estimate the birth years of everyone in a household (see “Charting the Possibilities” below). The key word, of course, is estimate—the tick-mark numbers given for each age-range group are only as accurate as the person who reported them.

All the head-of-household censuses were treated as public records. From 1790 to 1820, Congress expected two copies to be posted in public places in each enumeration district—courthouses, churches, taverns—so the public had a chance to correct the schedules. According to an 1830 law, the original manuscripts from these years were supposed to be filed with the federal government, but not all states did so. Starting in 1830, copies were no longer posted for public review; instead, two copies were made for the federal government’s use.

Record loss from the head-of-household census era is most profound before 1830, when manuscripts remained in state hands. For example, with the exception of one county, New Jersey has no returns for any of the first four censuses. Many other states’ records of one or two census years have gone partially or totally missing.

In addition to what we commonly call “the census” (properly known as a population schedule), the government created two manufacturer schedules. The 1810 schedule asked only three questions—the kind, quantity and value of goods produced—and unfortunately, it’s neither uniformly compiled nor mostly extant. The 1820 schedule asked more questions, including number of employees, amount of capital invested and types of products manufactured. Luckily, it has survived mostly intact. Your Guide to the Federal Census (see box below) has a chart outlining available schedules for each state. Look for 1810 manufacturing schedules on population-census microfilm. The 1820 industrial schedules are on National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) microfilm M279 in record group 29.

If you happen to have a Revolutionary War soldier (or a soldier’s widow) who lived to 1840 in the family, you should find his name on the second page of that year’s population schedule. Census takers were instructed to include the names and ages of surviving pensioners (heads of household and not) from that bygone era. Once again, take this information with a grain of salt: For instance, Philip Titlow, listed in Knox County, Tenn., is said to be 57 years old; that means he would have been a literal babe in arms, since his approximate birth year of 1783 coincides with the Treaty of Paris ending the war. Either Titlow’s age or service (or both) was misstated.

2. Put it in historical context.

Constant pushing toward an ever-changing frontier characterized the time period covered by the head-of-household censuses. That means you’ll find families moving through multiple states, census by census. You’ll also discover families listed in multiple counties in the same state —even if they never moved. That’s because state governments created new counties and subdivided old ones as population surged into new areas. Finding an ancestor in a new county doesn’t necessarily mean he moved. Is the township name the same? Then your ancestor likely had the same residence he did 10 years before. Of course, townships splintered during this time period, too, so the township name could have changed. It’s common for different counties in a state to have townships bearing the same name—especially presidential ones such as Washington, Jefferson and Jackson. Every county seems to have one of those.

The Peter Daub family, enumerated in the 1820 census at their home in Jackson Township, Lebanon County, Pa., illustrates this concept. The family didn’t move between 1800 and 1820, but the 1800 census entry—found under the variant spelling Peter Toup—lists their residence as Heidelberg Township, Dauphin County, Pa. Both the county and the township changed in those 20 years between censuses (I haven’t found Peter in the 1810 census).

Almost all heads of household listed in the census were men. The few women listed as heads of household tended to be widows with property. In many cases, they’re listed simply as “Widow Peters” or “Widow Smith.” Younger widows, especially those with young children, typically remarried and remained anonymous tick marks on the census.

3. Guess at relationships, but don’t make assumptions.

The names appearing close to your ancestors’ on pre-1850 censuses might signify neighbors—or they might not. Some schedules alphabetized the residents within a township or county. The names on unalphabetized lists might be worth looking into, but don’t assume they’re neighbors. Many census takers formed loops through their designated areas, which means they might not have gone to adjacent houses in the order you think they would have.

Although you can hypothesize relationships based on the census age ranges, remember your hypotheses could be false. Some households contained orphaned nephews, nieces and cousins; parents and fathers-and mothers-in-law; aunts and uncles; siblings and siblings-in-law; live-in servants; and hired day laborers who happened to be working on census day.

Ancestors are hard to find before 1850. Scarce records and incomplete censuses prevail. We’ve got eight tips for discovering your distant roots!

Take, for example, William Dill, enumerated in 1810 at his residence in Dover, Kent County, Del. His household comprised a male age 26 to 45, a male under 10, two females 26 to 45, one female 16 to 26 and two females under 10. The family could consist of William, his wife, a sister-in-law, an older daughter and three young children. Or William could be a father with two widowed daughters and four grandchildren. The possibilities are endless—but you can narrow them by consulting other records in conjunction with the census.

4. Use other records to confirm hunches and discover new leads.

By now, you know that head-of-household censuses say frustratingly little about our ancestors. Still, they can be powerful tools when you use them in tandem with other records. How? Turn to these four common record types to start replacing those tick marks with names. Just remember: In genealogy, redundancy is a good thing. Try to find at least two records to confirm any hunches.

Tax lists: Our ancestors paid taxes every year, and many of the resulting records have survived. Tax lists typically note the amount of property a person owned along with a description of that property—animals, carriages and so on. Because these lists were prepared annually, they can tell you when individuals moved in between censuses. In some cases, tax lists even show where an individual went after leaving a particular township or county.

Vital records: Your best bets for getting information about late-1700s and early-1800s births, marriages and deaths (which predate statewide registration) are often church congregational registers. That is, unless you’re blessed with New England ancestors, in which case town registers of births, marriages and deaths will be a big help. In any event, vital records should give birth dates, letting you attach names to those tick marks. In the case of Peter Daub’s family, I found that the birth dates listed in the baptism records of Peter’s children, as well as some of their burial records, matched the age-range groups in the census. This was important, since three different Peter Daubs lived in Lebanon County at the time.

Estate records: Many (but not all) people name their children in their wills, often in birth order. Compare that information with a census schedule for the corresponding family. Are all the children accounted for? Of course, sometimes it’s better if an ancestor died without a will: In that case—assuming there was an estate worth splitting—one of his children would have filed a petition naming all of the deceased person’s offspring. Wills and other estate records can help you learn the elusive first name of “Widow Smith,” as well.

Did your family fight in the American Revolutionary War? Learn about your Revolutionary War genealogy with these expert tips.

Land documents: Remember how I said you can’t always assume the people listed above and below your ancestors are neighbors? Well, records of land sales can reveal the real people next door. Registers of deeds contain descriptions of property being sold, including the names of people who owned land on all sides of a property.

As you can see, extracting information from pre-1850 censuses isn’t as easy as mining later counts. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. With a bit of extra effort, you’ll learn details that make your genealogical journey much more exciting.

Constructing a “Shadow Census”

If you need help translating those tick marks into real relatives, try constructing a “shadow census.” Here’s how: Once you find a pre-1850 census enumeration for your family, create a chart with three columns. In the first column, write down the gender and age group of every person in the household, from oldest to youngest. Then calculate the likely birth year for each person; put those dates in the second column. Finally, use the third column to fill in any names and dates you’ve gleaned from other records that seem to fit the census entries. Below, I’ve charted the household of Peter Daub, enumerated in the 1820 census.

Census EntriesEstimated Birth YearsPossible People
male age 45+born by 1775Peter Daub, born about 1770
female 26-451775-1794Magdalena (wife)
female 26-451775-1794
(sister-in-law) 1771
? Anna Maria Noll
male 16-261794-1804John (son), born 1797
male 16-261794-1804Peter (son), born 1800
female 16-261794-1804? Magdalena (daughter-in-law)
male 16-181802-1804Johann Jacob (son), born 1805
male 10-161804-1810Nicholas (son), born 1807
female 10-161804-1810
(daughter) 1809
Maria Magadalena
male under 10after 1810Johann Henrich (son), born 1813

Just as likely as not, you’ll find some “extra” people in the household. Use the genders and birth-year ranges of these individuals as clues to expand your search to extended family. From other records, I learned that head of household Peter Daub eventually became the administrator of his sister-in-law Anna Maria Noll’s estate. Anna Maria may have been widowed and moved in with her extended family. Son Peter Daub and his wife, Magdalena, were married in 1819; the newlyweds could have been living with his parents in 1820.

Census Record Resources

Have more questions about early census schedules? These reliable sources should answer them.

  • The American Census Handbook by Thomas Jay Kemp (Scholarly Resources)
  • The Census Book: A Genealogist’s Guide to Federal Census Facts, Schedules and Indexes by William Dollarhide (Heritage Quest)
  • A Census of Pensioners for Revolutionary or Military Services, 1840 by the US Department of State (Genealogical Publishing Co., out of print)
  • Heads of Families at the First Census of the United States Taken in the Year 1790, 12 volumes (Clearfield Co.)
  • Map Guide to the U.S. Federal Censuses, 1790-1920 by William Thorndale and William Dollarhide (Genealogical Publishing Co.)
  • Your Guide to the Federal Census by Kathleen W. Hinckley (Betterway Books)

A version of this article appeared in the January 2006 issue of Family Tree Magazine.

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