Genealogy: 1850 U.S. federal census tutorial

1850 MastheadBy Barry J. Ewell

This is a comprehensive tutorial for researching the 1850 U.S. federal census. You will be introduced to what I have used and shared with thousands to successfully find generations of family. Begin by learning how to use the census as a foundation to effective research, identify, map, and follow family through generations.

The tutorial will expand your knowledge and skills of how to conduct an exhaustive search to find genealogical and Family History records, repositories, resolve research problems and connect with resources researching similar lines.

The tutorial is divided into the following sections:

  • 1790-1940 U.S federal census resources
  • Introduction to 1850 U.S. federal census
  • How to effectively use the 1850 U.S. federal census
  • Search the 1850 census schedules
  • Expand your census research with military records
  • Defining the U.S. federal census
  • How to use the 1850 U.S. federal census
  • Questions asked on the 1850 census

1850 resources
Click on any of the following years and you will be taken to that years’ census tutorial:


  • U.S. census learning aids. Throughout the 1850 U.S. federal census tutorial find links to resources that I have specifically prepared to help you. In addition, I have written and assembled 190+ articles and resource aids to provide you a more in-depth understanding of the census research process.  I have tried to cover every possible question and angle that you are likely to face in your U.S. census research.  I would encourage you to use the resources often.  The category headings are as follows:
    • 190+ U.S. federal census articles and resource aids
      • U.S. federal census tutorials
      • Census and genealogy forms
      • Census research skills
      • Follow ancestors through the census
      • Researching names in the census
      • Defining ancestor age
      • Expanding census research to other resources
      • Expand your census research with military records
      • Census research best practices

1850 introduction
The following are a few of the details that are important to understand about the 1850 U.S. Federal census:

1850 Census MapNumber of persons included in the 1850 census: 23,191,876 people were enumerated in the United States (35% increase over 1840 census), of whom 3,204,313 were slaves.

1850 census day:  June 1, 1850
1850 census duration: 5 months
1850 census geography:

  • States and territories enumerated: 31 states and four territories where included in the census.
  • New states: The newest states included the in 1850 census were Florida, Iowa, Wisconsin, Texas and California
  • Territories included: Minnesota (inc. Dakotas) , New Mexico (inc. Arizona) , Oregon (inc. Washington & Idaho) , Utah
  • The available states include: Alabama, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia (inc. West Virginia), Wisconsin
  • The missing states: All census records survived.

A few important facts about the 1850 census include:

  • First to record names. 1850 Census was the first to record the names of every person in a household and an individual’s place of birth.  1790-1840 censuses listed head of family only.
  • Two questionnaires. There were two questionnaires, one for free inhabitants and one for slaves.
  • Census maps. This is the first census where the enumerator (census taker) was actually given a map (with districts) of the area they were to cover.
  • Native Americans. Indians that lived on reservations or unsettled tracts of land were not included.
  • Extra census copies. Enumerators make two extra copies of the original census: 1) one for the county clerk 2) one for the state/territory.
  • Census schedules. Six schedules were prepared for the 1850 census.  They included:
    • Schedule 1: Free Inhabitants
    • Schedule 2: Slave Inhabitants
    • Schedule 3: Mortality
    • Schedule 4: Production of Agriculture
    • Schedule 5: Products of Industry
    • Schedule 6: Social Statistics
  • Freedmen. Freedmen of color were enumerated exactly as a free white person. There were a total of 424,183 freedmen in the 1850 census.

1850 usese
Learn how to use the census to effectively find generations of family.  Use the information and clues provided to build out your family tree and expand your research. I have provided a comprehensive review of each question that includes research insights, tips and tricks, and must know information to aid your research.

  • Location and Dwelling number (Col. 1 -2). We are provided information such as the city, village, town, and borough and county where the family resides. This can help in defining geographic areas to search for family and records.
    • Counted in order. The dwelling was the number of houses that were counted.
    • Societies. Search for a historical and/or genealogical society in the county to learn about community, records developed at the time you family lived in the area, connect with other genealogists who are researching the same surname, groups (i.e., church) to which your family belonged.
    • Use the location. Use the location to look for resources such as churches, cemeteries, courthouses.
    • Modern day repositories. Use the location to identify locations of modern day record repositories that are near the place you family lived (e.g., historical societies, genealogical societies, libraries, archives, court houses.)
  • Family Number (Col. 3). This was the actual number of families counted.
    • Order of household visited. The census is recorded in the order of households visited. Take special note of the dwelling location versus the family number. For example, you could have dwelling 1 and dwelling 2, but for dwelling two you could have families 2, 3 and 4 living in the dwelling 2.  This could be an apartment building or several families living in the same home.  If you have people living in the same building, we need to be asking how they are related.
    • Circle of influence. You can begin to build the circle of influence for your ancestors by seeing who the neighbors were.
    • Search the neighbors. Often neighbors move with neighbors.  Are they the same family? Members of the same congregation? Friends?  If you can’t follow family or find the family in the census, see if you can follow neighbors. Are the given names similar among the neighbors and your family? Similar names run in families.  This might be a clue that they are more than just neighbors. It has been my experience that neighbors, even when they don’t share the same name are related.  Look for the neighbors being the wife’s parents, sister of the husband, siblings of the wife, aunts and uncles and so forth.  When I couldn’t find my ancestors in location, I have searched on the names of know neighbors to find my family. Make sure you include the names of neighbors in your family profile.
  • Composition of the family (Col. 4). Provides members of the household by name.
    • Relationships not provided. You are not given the relationships of person listed on the census. You will need to use other records to help make associations. Do not make assumptions about the relationships. I spent two years researching an assumption I made as a beginning genealogist that was wrong.
    • Children born after June 1, 1850. Children were not included who were born after June 1, 1850.
    • Follow family through the census. Make it a priority to follow your family through censuses during their lifetime (e.g., federal, state, territorial, and local censuses) as well as census schedules if they exist (e.g., population, agriculture, manufacturing, social statistics, crime, mortality, veterans, slave.) The following articles will provide you a detailed example of following a family through the census.  See the articles:
    • Search same surname. Look closely at persons with the same surname. Could they be a relative? Does the individual show up as a child in earlier census?  Search other records such as deeds, wills to see if the person shows up. Could individuals be in-laws? Check marriages of the county for husbands of sisters, aunts, and mothers.
    • Research all persons in household. It will not be uncommon to find individuals living in the same household that have different surnames (last names).  As a practice, research all persons living in the household with your ancestors or in the home of siblings. There is usually a family connection. I have found it important to search for the surname several pages before and after the page where you find your family. This can also help in suggesting relationships between neighbors. Look for added clues such as given first names, occupations, places of origin.  When I contact the genealogical/historical societies, I have often sought to find the genealogists who are researching these surnames to compare research.
    • Extract all with same surname. Make it a practice to extract all the persons with the same surname living in the same county.  Are they family? They could be family connection or related connection such as where they came from.  If your family lives near a state our county border, go ahead and extract the persons with the same surnames from neighboring counties.  I have usually found important clues and connections among those with the same surname that has enhanced my research.
  • Age (Col. 5). This is not exact date of birth, but it will provide a “ballpark” number that you can use in the help you track the person in the next census and search for birth event records of the time period.
    • Search other records. Few states during this period had vital records, but there are good changes that you may be able to look for church records. Start your search for these type of records at the genealogical/historical society.
    • Age groupings pre-1850 census. Use the age groupings from the 1840 census and 1860 census as confirmation markers that you have the right family.
    • Age gaps. Look at age gaps between children.  Is the age cap normal? For example, every two years.  Are the age gaps larger than expected? This could be a clue that there was another child or spouse that had passed away.  Look at age of husband and wife.  Are they about the same age? Is one spouse much older than the other?  If yes, this could be a clue that there is second marriage. Look at the ages of children and the place of birth.  This might provide clues of where the parents were married or from where the family migrated.
  • Occupation (Col. 8). This indicates the person’s occupation and related information can help one search for employment records. Look carefully at the person’s occupation/trade and define what types of records that might exist.  I had an ancestor who was a merchant which led me to look for a business license, business/professional directory, ads for his business in the newspaper and related documents all of which I found. Another genealogist, had ancestor who was a member of the clergy which led them to search and find church records. If the person was a farmer, make sure you look at Schedule 4, “Agricultural Census” for more information about the family.
  • Value of real estate (Col. 9). This will help identify if there records you can locate at the county recorder’s office or equivalent agency for deeds, mortgages, and property tax records.
  • Place of birth (Col. 10). If the person was born in the United States, the enumerator was to enter the state where they were born. If they were born outside the United States, they the enumerator would enter the native country. If the person was born within the state they were being enumerated, the census taker might include the county or township. Use this information to narrow your search for records to geographic area even town. Also very helpful with clues to immigration and/or migration.
  • Marital Status (Col. 11). This denotes if the individual was married within the year (i.e., June 2, 1849 to June 1, 1850.)  It will provide clues for looking for marriage event records of the time period.  Because the person could have been married at any time during that year, make it a practice to also look for school records for the individuals also.
  • Education (Col. 12). This identifies if the person had gone to school within the year (i.e., June 2, 1849 to June 1, 1850.) This will provide clues to look for school records that can associate children with parents.  Look for records such as school census.
  • Read and write (Col. 13). Use this information to confirm that you have the right person when searching other records. For example, you are searching wills of individuals with the same name of as your ancestor. The census records said that your ancestor could read and write. You find the wills of two persons with the same name. One marked his will with an X the other signed his name on the will.  The person using the X most likely couldn’t read or write. Since you are looking for a person who could read and write, the X should raise caution flags that this person may not be the person you are looking for.
  •  Whether deaf & dumb, blind, insane, idiotic, pauper or convict (Col. 14). Do not overlook this category. Insane could lead to institutional and/or guardianship records; convict could finding court and/or jail records.

1850 schedules
The 1850 census included the population and several other schedules taken usually at the same time. There are resources online and in print that provide more detail on these schedules and how to use them in genealogy research.  I always suggest that you check these schedules. They include:

  • Slaves Schedule. Shows slave owners and the number of slaves they owned. Slave schedules play a very important role in identifying the person who owned the slaves.
    • Slave schedules exist. Slave schedules exist for Arkansas, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and Virginia. This schedule includes:
      • Name of slave owner
      • Number of slaves owned (Each owner’s slave was assigned a number versus a name.  Numbering restarted with each new owner. Name of slave is not provided.)
      • umber of slaves manumitted (released from slavery) (The number of slaves freed from bondage in the past year.)
      • Age
      • Color
      • Sex
      • Fugitive from state? (The number of uncaught escaped slaves in the past year.)
      • Deaf-mute, blind, insane, idiotic?
    • Slave owner. Use the name of the slave owner to look for probate and tax records for possible identity of specific individuals.
    • Age of slaves. Use the age of the slaves to determine the birth order in families especially when you have the names and sex of the family members.
    • Finding families. Finding African American families when they changed surnames. Between 1865 and 1875, I have found that it was common for African American families to choose a different surname. If you suspect this happened to your family, try searching on the first name and ages to locate the family or searching on the neighbor’s surnames.
    • See the video series: 25+ Introduction to African-American Genealogy Tutorials
  • Industry/Manufacturing Schedule. Provides information on businesses and industries for the year (i.e., June 2, 1849 to June 1, 1850).  Manufactures that were household based were not included. The information collected focused on the products of the industry such as mining, fisheries, mercantile, commercial and trading businesses.
  • Mortality Schedule. Provides information about persons who died during the twelve months prior to the census (i.e., June 2, 1849 to June 1, 1850). It collected the following information: name, age, sex, color, and place of birth,  marital status, profession, occupation/trade, month of death, disease or cause of death, number of days ill and remarks. Mortality schedules exist for Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and Virginia.
  • Agricultural Schedule. Provides data on farms and the names of the farmers for the year (i.e., June 2, 1849 to June 1, 1850). Farm information focused on agricultural production
  • Social Statistics Schedule. Includes information about the following topics:  valuation of real estate; annual taxes; colleges, academies, and schools; seasons and crops; libraries; newspapers and periodicals; religion; pauperism; crime; and wages.

1850 military
Even though there is no information in the 1850 census that identifying veterans of war, there are still men living who served in one or more military wars and conflicts.  The records available for these men varies but can yield important clues and knowledge about the veteran and his family.

  • Pension applications. Search for pension applications and records of pension payments for veterans, their widows, and other heirs. The pension applications usually provide the most information and can include supporting documents such as marriage, birth, and dead records/certificates, pages from family Bibles, family letters, dispositions of witnesses, affidavits, discharge papers and other supporting documents. Even if you ancestor did not receive a pension, look to see if his pension request was denied.
  • Bounty lands. Bounty land applications also are related wartime service. The federal government provided bounty land for those who served in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, and Indian wars between 1775 and 1855. Bounty lands were offered as incentive to serve and as a reward for service. Bounty land was claimed by veterans or their heirs.

Search for these military records:

Revolutionary War 1776-1783. Look for military records of men serving in the Revolutionary War who are between the ages of 80 and 90+ in the 1850 census.  These men would have been born prior to 1770. See the article:

War of 1812 (1812-1814). Look for military records of men serving in the War of 1812 who are between the ages of 51 and 90+ in the 1850 census. These men would have been born prior to 1799. See the article:

Early Indian Wars 1815-1858. Look for military records of men serving in the Early Indian Wars who are between the ages of 15 and 90 in the 1850 census. These men would have been born prior to 1835. See the article:

Mexican War 1846-1848. Look for military records of men serving in the Mexican Wars who are between the ages of 17-65 in the 1850 census.  These men would have been born prior to 1832. See the article:

Civil War 1861-1865. Look for military records of men who would be serving in the U.S. Civil War who are between the ages of 0 and 50 in the 1850 census.  These men would have been born prior in 1850 and earlier. Keep in mind that many young men lied about their age and served with their father, brother (s), or other family members.  If your ancestor lived in the Union or Confederate states that they served in their army.  Many men who were in the Union served in the Confederacy. And there are many men from the South that served in the Union Army. Make sure that you search for all male members of the family (i.e., father, sons, brothers, uncles, and nephews.)  The Civil War enlistment card will give you clues of your ancestors’ location and place of residence. See the articles:

Researching military headstones. Military headstones have evolved through time. See the following articles for details:

1850 defining
A census is a government-sponsored enumeration of the population in a particular area and contains a variety of information — names, heads of household (or all household members), ages, citizenship status, ethnic background, and so on. Here are some different types of census records you are likely to come across in your research.

U.S. federal census is also called a population schedule. Federal census records provide the building blocks of your research, allowing you to both confirm information and to learn more. Compiled in the United States for every decade since 1790, census population schedules are comprehensive, detailed records of the federal government’s decennial survey of American households. Information from the schedules is used by the federal government for demographic analysis.

The schedules themselves, of interest primarily to genealogists, contain the personal information of the survey respondents. To protect the privacy of the people whose names appear in each schedule, census records are restricted for 72 years after the census is taken and are not available to researchers during that time.

1850 using
I’ve effectively used the 1850 census to conduct find and use the following information:

  • Identify head of household
  • Identify members of household by name
  • Identify ages of individuals by name
  • Begin to establish family relationships (e.g., spouse, children, siblings, parents)
  • Begin to identify possible remarriages and step relationships
  • Locate and identify birthplaces
  • Identify occupations
  • Locate and identify real estate
  • Find information in various schedules that include: Population, slave, agriculture, industry and mortality
  • Locate and identify family who are neighbors
  • Identify spelling variations
  • Locate and identify family in other census substitute records (e.g., probate inventories, tax lists)
  • Locate and identify children not yet known
  • Locate and identify possible parents
  • Locate and identify possible children not listed in later censuses
  • Differentiate between families of the same name
  • Locate and identify possible neighbors who might be family
  • Identify slaves in age groups by owner
  • As a good reference point before I begin to search the family in the pre-1850 censuses.
  • See the article: Four-step research strategy for pre-1850 U.S. Federal census

1850 questions
The following are the questions found in the 1850 United States Census.

Col. 1: Line No. on Page
Col. 2: Dwelling house No. (This was the number of houses that were counted.)

Col. 3: Family No. (This was the actual number of families counted.)

Col. 4: Name of every person whose usual place of abode on the first day of June, 1850, was in this family

Col. 5: Age
Col. 6: Sex
Col. 7: Color

  • White (This column was left blank if the person was white.)
  • Black (B)
  • Mulatto (M)

Col. 8: Profession, Occupation, or Trade of each male person over 15 years of age

Col. 9: Value of Real Estate owned

Col. 10: Place of birth (If the persons was born in the United States, the enumerator was to enter the state where they were born. If they were born outside the United States, they the enumerator would enter the native country.)
Col. 11: Married within the year (i.e., June 2, 1849 to June 1, 1850)

Col. 12: Attended School within the year (i.e., June 2, 1849 to June 1, 1850)
Col. 13: Over 20 who cannot read & write
Col. 14: Whether deaf & dumb, blind, insane, idiotic, pauper or convict

Col. 15: Remarks