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

by | 11 Jan 2024

How to Find Family History in Early U.S. Census Records

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 correlated with one another and other records, 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 names, by free or slave status. 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 whites and six age groups for enslaved and free colored persons in 1840.

What Can Pre-1850 Census Records Tell Us?

Since the pre-1850 census records don’t identify names (other than the 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 in conjunction with other records to:

  • track your ancestors’ movements prior to 1850, including migrations
  • distinguish between individuals with the same name
  • pinpoint previously unknown children
  • develop a hypothesis for potential parents
  • identify neighbors (who may turn out to be relatives!)

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 is to identify your family in as many of the 1790–1840 censuses as possible, analyze the information found in each one, and correlate that information with data from other census years.

Sorting Out Who’s Who

When using pre-1850 census records, we might 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 A.B. Alcott in the 1840 census of Concord, Middlesex, Massachusetts, for example, we might create the following list:

A.B. Alcott, age 40–49 (b. 1790–1800)
Female, age 40–49 (b. 1790–1800) 
Female, age 10–14 (b. 1825–1831)
Female, age 5–9 (b. 1831–1836)
Female, age 5–9 (b. 1831–1836)

Next we can correlate this information with information from other records, including census records. This example is a simple one since the entire family was still living together in 1850, albeit in a different county.

Alcott Family1840 Census – Concord, Middlesex Co., MA1850 Census – Boston, Suffolk Co., MA
Almos Bronson Alcott, b. 1799Male, b. 1790–1800A. B. Alcott, male, 50
Abigail (May) Alcott, b. 1800Female, b. 1790–1800Abby, female, 49
Anna Bronson Alcott, b. 1831Female, b. 1825–1831Anna B., female, 19
Louisa May Alcott, b. 1832Female, b. 1831–1836Louisa M., female, 17
Elizabeth Sewell Alcott, b. 1835Female, b. 1831–1836Elizabeth, female, 15
Abigail May Alcott, b. July 1840*
Abby M., female, 9

*the youngest daughter, May, was born in July 1840…after the 1 June enumeration date of the 1840 census.

Narrow Down Birth Dates

Using several pre-1850 U.S. census records in conjunction, 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, along with the ages of all members of his household (to help you identify which “place” in the family most likely belongs to your target subject. For example, let’s say the following census records all apply to the same woman — Ann. In 1820 and 1830 she is an unnamed female in her parental household. By 1840 she’s no longer in her parental household — likely married and noted as a tick mark in her husband’s household.

1820 Census – 7 August1830 Census – 1 June1840 Census – 1 JuneEstimated birth range
Female < 10 (1810–1820)Female, 15–19 (1810–1815)Female, 30–39 (1800–1810)about 1810

As you can see, there is some amount of conflict as someone who did not turn ten until after 7 August 1820 would only be 29 on 1 June 1840, not 30. But it is close so we can estimate her birth as sometime around 1810 (but likely after 6 August 1810 as there are no children identified in her 1810 parental household — she was the oldest).

In 1850 Ann was identified as age 37, which also fits with every census enumeration except the slight 1840 census anomaly. This puts her birth as likely sometime between 8 August 1810 and about 1813.

Narrow Down Death Dates

Clues to death dates may also be found in the early US census records prior to 1850. The 1830 federal census, for example, includes “wd Annah Allcox” (mother of Amos) as head of household. From this, we know that Joseph Alcott likely died sometime between the 1820 and 1830 census enumerations (he died in 1829). It’s also not uncommon to 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 could also indicate that they died.

More Than One Wife

Using the age bracket method for the wife/spouse for each census year may reveal the death of one wife and marriage to another. Look for instances when the possible wife’s age appears to. jump between one census and the next, or when the age of the wife makes her too young to be the mother of all of the apparent children living in the household. 

Sort Out Same-Name Individuals

Since only the head of household is named in the pre-1850 censuses, it is important to consider that there may have been more than one household headed by a man with the same name and whose households are a close match to the ancestral family. In this case, one approach is to identify all members of each household across multiple census records (if possible) to get a good feel for the makeup of the family pre–1850. Note the nearby neighbors each year as well, as that can often help to distinguish between different householders with the same name. If that’s not enough to pinpoint the correct family, then continue to correlate the details of each family member with additional records, including land, tax, and probate records, in order to determine which one is most likely correct.

Explore Further:

©2024 Kimberly Powell. Use of this article elsewhere without permission violates copyright. Short excerpts and links are welcome, with credit and a link back to Learn Genealogy.

Keep the Learning Going!

Using Historical Laws to Dig More From Tax Records

Using Historical Laws to Dig More From Tax Records

Mining Tax Lists and the Laws That Created Them Updated 19 March 2024 What Were They Taxed On? Tax assessed in Martin County in 1779 was governed by a 1778 North Carolina act which outlined what property was...

12 Strategies for Using FamilySearch Full-Text Search

12 Strategies for Using FamilySearch Full-Text Search

How to Find Hidden Family Using FamilySearch Full-Text Search Updated 19 March 2024 FamilySearch has launched an experimental full-text search feature for its collection of image-only genealogical records, offering a...