Digging Details from Pre-1850 U.S. Census Records

Research Family History in US Census Records Before 1850

The 1830 U.S. census for Prince William Parish, Beaufort County, South Carolina.

Most genealogists researching American ancestors love the detailed censuses taken between 1850 and 1940. Yet our eyes glaze over and our head starts hurting when we take on the columns and headcounts of the pre-1850 census enumerations. Many researchers go so far as to avoid them altogether or use them only as a source for the head of household. When used together, however, these early U.S. census records can often provide important clues to early American families.

The earliest U.S. census schedules, 1790-1840, furnish only the names of the free heads of family, not of other family members. These schedules totaled the number of other family members, without name, by whether they were free or enslaved. Free, White individuals were also grouped by age and sex categories from 1790 through 1810 - a categorization that eventually applied to other persons. The age categories also increased each year, from two age groups for free White males only in 1790, to twelve age groups for free White people and six age groups for enslaved people and free people of color in 1840.

What Can pre-1850 Census Records Tell US?

Since the pre-1850 census records don't identify names (other than head of household) or family relationships, you may be wondering what they can tell you about your ancestors. Pre-1850 census records can be used to:

  • track your ancestors movements prior to 1850
  • distinguish between individuals with the same name
  • identify possible children that you may not be aware of
  • identify possible parents for your ancestor
  • identify possible relatives among neighbors

By themselves, these early census records don't often provide much useful information, but used together they can generally provide a good picture of a family's structure. The key here is to identify your family in as many of the 1790-1840 censuses as possible, and analyze the information found in each one in conjunction with the others.

Sorting Out Who's Who

When I research the pre-1850 census records, I begin by creating a list identifying each individual, their age, and the range of birth years supported by their given age. Looking at the family of Louisa May Alcott* in the 1840 census of Concord, Massachusetts, for example:

A.B. Alcott (Amos Bronson Alcott), age 40-49 (b. 1790-1800) 1799
Female (wife Abigail?), age 40-49 (b. 1790-1800) 1800
Girl (Anna Bronson?), age 10-14 (b. 1825-1831) 1831
Girl (Louisa May?), age 5-9 (b. 1831-1836) 1832
Girl (Elizabeth Sewell?), age 5-9 (b. 1831-1836) 1835

*the youngest daughter, May, was born in July 1840...after the date of the 1840 census

Tip! Men of the same name referred to as Sr or Jr weren't necessarily Father and Son. These designations were often used to distinguish between two different people of the same name in the area - Sr for the elder, and Jr for the younger.

This method can actually be used to sort out possible parents for your ancestors as well. In researching my Owens ancestors in Edgecombe County, N.C., I've created a large chart of all of the Owens men listed in the pre-1850 census records, along with the members of their households and the age brackets. While I still haven't been able to confirm exactly who goes where, this method did help me narrow down the possibilities.

Narrowing Down Birth Dates

Using several U.S. census records, you can often narrow down the ages of these early ancestors. To do this, it helps to create a list of the ages and possible birth years for each census year in which you can find your ancestor. Census records can help narrow down the birth year of Amos Bronson Alcox/Alcott, for example, to a range between 1795 and 1800. To be honest, you can get that range for him from a single census record (either 1800 or 1810), but having that same range possible in multiple censuses increases your likelihood of being correct.

Amos B. Alcox/Alcott

1840, Concord, Middlesex, Massachusetts
head of household, age 40-49 (1790-1800)

1820, Wolcott, New Haven, Connecticut
one of the 2 males age 16-25 (1795-1804)

1810, Wolcott, New Haven, Connecticut
1 male, age 10-15 (1795-1800)

1800, Wolcott, New Haven, Connecticut
male, age 0-4 (1795-1800)

His actual date of birth is Nov. 29, 1799, which fits right in.

Next > Digging Up Deaths from Pre-1850 Census Records

<< Analyzing Family Members & Birth Dates

Digging Up Deaths

Clues to death dates may also be found in the early U.S. census records prior to 1850. The 1830 federal census, for example, lists Anna Alcott (mother of Amos) as head of household with Wd. (for widow) after her name. From this, we know that Joseph Alcott died sometime between the 1820 and 1830 census (he actually died in 1829). Using the age bracket method for the wife/spouse for each census year may reveal the death of one wife and marriage to another. This is generally just guesswork, but look for instances when her possible age jumps between one census and the next, or when the age of the wife makes her too young to be the mother of all the children. Sometimes you'll find young children who appear to disappear between one census and the next. This could mean they were just living elsewhere at the time of the census, but it could also indicate that they died.