Genealogy: Availability of pre-1850 U.S. Federal and state census records

Pre-1850 USBy Barry J. Ewell
In this article you will find an overview of the type of information you will find in the censuses and which U.S. Federal and state census records exist and are available for research.

Over the years as a genealogist, I have spent too much time looking for information about my ancestors in a record that did not exist.  It never entered my mind to even ask the question, “What records existed during the time my ancestor lived in this location?” One of my earliest assumptions was that census records existed for every person for the time period in which they lived in the United States. And it wasn’t until I asked a resource librarian, why am I not finding census records for Virgina in 1790-1800, that I learned that the records were completely lost during the war of 1812.  After further discussion, I learned about Virginia state censuses that were available from the late 1700’s and that the 1790 census was reconstructed using census substitute records.

I have created three charts for the time period before 1850 that show the 1)  type of information found in the early censuses, 2) availability of  U.S. Federal census records 3) availability of U.S. state census records.

Information found in pre-1850 censuses
Among the more prevalent and valued records are the Federal and state census records.  The earliest census records contain information on people born well before the American Revolution, while the 1940 schedules — the most recent ones open to public inspection — contain information on many people who are still living. Using these records, a researcher might conceivably trace a family line from a living person down to an ancestor born more than 250 years ago.

The following chart provides an overview of the the topics covered in the U.S. Federal census records. From 1790-1840, only the head of household is listed, along with the number of household members in selected age groups was found.

179018001810182018301840
Head of household name onlyYesYesYesYesYesYes
Headcount by age, gender, slaves, other…YesYesYesYesYesYes
Revolutionary War VeteranYes
Immigration and NaturalizationYes
Occupation and economic dataYesYesYes
Census form created by census takerYesYesYes
Standard census form used by census takerYesYesYes

Available U.S. Federal census records 1790-1840
The following chart provides an overview of the availability of the 1790-1840 U.S. Federal census records. Legend for the chart follows:

  • Yes: Census data is available for most if not all of the state’s counties.
  • Lost:  Census was conducted but lost.  Search to see if the census for that year has been reconstructed from records such as tax lists, oaths of allegiance, land entities, militia lists, petitions, road records, and other sources.  Also search to see if state censuses exist for that time period as well as other census substitutes.
  • N/A: State was not a recognized as a state or territory and/or was not included in the U.S. Federal census.

These censuses are available through FamilySearch.org, Ancestry.com and other online databases.  See the chart “Available state censuses before 1850 Federal census” which follows this chart.  The chart will provide a listing of the state censuses that you can also search.

State179018001810182018301840
AlabamaN/AN/AN/ALostYesYes
Arkansas N/AN/AN/ALostYesYes
ConnecticutYesYesYesYesYesYes
DelawareLostYesYesYesYesYes
District of ColumbiaYesYesLostYesYesYes
FloridaN/AN/AN/AN/AYesYes
GeorgiaN/AN/AN/AYesYesYes
IllinoisN/AN/AYesYesYesYes
IndianaN/AN/AN/AYesYesYes
IowaN/AN/AN/AN/AN/AYes
 State179018001810182018301840
KentuckyN/AN/AYesYesYesYes
LouisianaN/AN/AYesYesYesYes
MaineYesYesYesYesYesYes
MarylandYesYesYesYesYesYes
MassachusettsYesYesYesYesYesYes
MichiganN/AN/AN/AYesYesYes
MississippiN/AN/AN/AYesYesYes
MissouriN/AN/AN/AN/AYesYes
New HampshireYesYesYesYesYesYes
New JerseyN/AN/AN/AN/AYesYes
 State179018001810182018301840
New YorkYesYesYesYesYesYes
North CarolinaYesYesYesYesYesYes
OhioN/AN/AN/AYesYesYes
PennsylvaniaYesYesYesYesYesYes
Rhode IslandYesYesYesYesYesYes
South CarolinaYesYesYesYesYesYes
TennesseeN/AN/AYesYesYesYes
VermontYesYesYesYesYesYes
VirginiaN/AN/AYesYesYesYes
WisconsinN/AN/AN/AYesYesYes

*Data for the above chart was compiled from information provided from www.archives.gov.

Available state census records before 1850
State censuses were conducted by states in off years in between the Federal census. Every state was in charge of whether and when they would conduct a census.  The following chart will give the availability and year for state census records that exist before 1850. These records usually contain the same type of information as in the Federal census as well as additional questions that are unique to that state such as military service, occupation, state and county of origin, mortality, education and voting status.

Like the Federal census, the state census is a snapshot of the home and its inhabitants at a given time. The information on the state census can be used to construct, confirm, add, and/or delete information from the family profile you have begun building from the Federal census.  For example, I have used the state census to find children that were born and died in between the Federal census, confirmed deaths of wife’s, husbands and grandparents, marriages of children, new marriages for head of households, other locations to search and much more.

These censuses are located at the state archives and/or libraries (note: many are online), through microfilm at LDS Family History Centers, online transcripts of counties within a state from historical societies, and online databases such as Ancestry.com.

StateAvailability of state census records before 1850
Alabama1818182018211823
Arkansas18231829
California1788179017961797-98181618361844
ConnecticutNo state census exists.
Delaware1782
District of Columbia1803
Florida1825
Georgia1798180018101827183418381845
Illinois1810181818201825183018351840
1845
Indiana1807
Iowa183618381844184618471849
KentuckyNo state census exists.
LouisianaNo state census exists before 1840.
Maine1837
Maryland17761778
MassachusettsNo state census exists before 1840.
Michigan18371845
Minnesota1849
Mississippi1801180518081810181618181820
1822182318241825183018331837
184018411845
Missouri179718031817181918401844
New HampshireNo state census exists.
New JerseyNo state census exists before 1850.
New Mexico179018231845
New York1790182518351845
North Carolina1786
OhioNo state census exists.
Oregon1842184318451849
PennsylvaniaNo state census exists.
Rhode Island177417771782
South Carolina18251839
TennesseeNo state census exists before 1850.
Texas18291836
VermontNo state census exists.
Virginia17821783178417851786
West VirginiaNo state census exists.
Wisconsin18361838184218461847

Data for the above chart was compiled from information provided by each state historical society and archives.gov.