Genealogy: Four-step research strategy for pre-1850 U.S. Federal census

Stepping stonesBy Barry J. Ewell
The 1790 to pre-1850 U.S. Federal and states censuses do contain less information than those from 1850-1940.  You are only provided the name of the head of household and the remainder of the persons are grouped by race/sex/age category.  Each census during this time period does increase in information provided, for example, 1830/1840 census you are given the place of birth, race (white/colored), whether the person is naturalized born citizen and military service in the 1840 census.  You can effectively use the data to build a household profile and search other records to expand you knowledge.

If you are moving back through the censuses, you have already found that it is much easier to go from 1940-1850 mainly due to having names, ages and relationships provided. You need to be extra careful in the pre-1850 censuses to make sure you have identified the right ancestor and household.  I have had more than my share of family trees that I have had to unravel and rebuild because other genealogists have made quick decisions about lineage without confirming their assumptions.

I would like to share with you a simple four step strategy I’ve used to help increase your success with pre-1850 U.S. Federal census research.

Step 1: Create a family profile from 1850 census
Starting with 1850 census, create a profile of the family you have confirmed as you family or the household you are wanting to research. For example, I have identified the James Stewart household as my family and created a spreadsheet/chart that looks like this:

James StewartMale/Father/Head of Household42WhiteFulton Co., Georgia
SusanFemale/Mother41WhiteFulton Co., Georgia
DavidSon21WhiteFulton Co., Georgia
SarahFemale19WhiteFulton Co., Georgia
ArchibaldSon17WhiteFulton Co., Georgia
AmosSon15WhiteFulton Co., Georgia
MartinSon12WhiteFulton Co., Georgia
JamesSon9WhiteFulton Co., Georgia
MarthaFemale7WhiteFulton Co., Georgia

Step 2: Subtract 10 years from each person’s age
In the 1840 census, you are only provided head of household name and category combinations by race/sex/age/age. In order to increase my probability of finding the right household, I will subtract 10 years from the age of each person in 1850.  Step 2 of the spreadsheet/chart looks as follows:

NameSex1850 Age1840 AgeRaceLocation
James StewartMale/Father/Head of Household4232WhiteFulton Co., Georgia
SusanFemale/Mother4131WhiteFulton Co., Georgia
DavidSon2111WhilteFulton Co., Georgia
SarahFemale199WhiteFulton Co., Georgia
ArchibaldSon177WhiteFulton Co., Georgia
AmosSon155WhiteFulton Co., Georgia
MartinSon122WhiteFulton Co., Georgia
JamesSon9Not born yet
MarthaFemale7Not born yet

*Note that Martin in 5 years old.  I am going to look for a household where a male child could be either in the male category of “5 & under” or “Under 5 years.”

Step 3: Apply the 1840 race/sex/age category combination to each person
Obtain either a 1840 census list of the category combinations and/or 1840 blank census form for steps 3-4. Based the estimated ages of each person, assign one of the 1840 category combination for each individual in the household. Step 3 of the spreadsheet/chart looks as follows:

NameSex1840 Age1840 Age CategoryRaceLocation
James StewartMale/Father/Head of Household32Male-30 & under 40Free WhiteFulton Co., Georgia
SusanFemale/Mother31Female-30 & under 40Free WhiteFulton Co., Georgia
DavidSon11Male-10 & under 15Free WhiteFulton Co., Georgia
SarahFemale9Female-5 & under 10Free WhiteFulton Co., Georgia
ArchibaldSon7Male-5 & under 10Free WhiteFulton Co., Georgia
AmosSon5Male-5 & under 10 OR Under 5 yearsFree WhiteFulton Co., Georgia
MartinSon2Male-Under 5 yearsFree WhiteFulton Co., Georgia
JamesSonNot born yet
MarthaFemaleNot born yet

Step 4: Build a household search for the household in 1840 census
Based on the steps 1-3, I am now going finalize my 1840 household search profile (s) and start my search in the 1840 census location for the James Stewart household. Key points to remember:

  • James Stewart is the head of household.
  • Martin is 5 so I want to make sure I have profile that will account for him being counted in either category. Profile 1 is for the “5 & under 10” category and profile 2 is for the “Under 5 years category.”
  • Since the family lived in Fulton county, Georgia, I will begin my search there.
  • Use a blank 1840 census form to transcribe and record what you find.

1840 search profile 1 : James Stewart household-Fulton county, Georgia

Free White MalesFree White Females
Head of Household30 & under 4010 & under 155 & under 1030 & under 405 & under 10
James Stewart11211


1840 search profile 2 : James Stewart household-Fulton county, Georgia

Free White MalesFree White Females
Head of Household30 & under 4010 & under 155 & under 10Under 5 years30 & under 405 & under 10
James Stewart111111

Follow the same process for each census year 1830-1790.  If you are researching the same family, you should be able to track them through census.  If in the case of the James Stewart family, I will be able to track them to the 1830 census. When I reach the 1820 census, I will need to research other records to help me narrow the possibilities of which head of household James belonged.  I will seek to research all available state censuses, if available, and census substitutes to help build a case for following the Stewart family through the pre-1850 censuses.

For additional information, consult the following articles: