By 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 Stewart||Male/Father/Head of Household||42||White||Fulton Co., Georgia|
|Susan||Female/Mother||41||White||Fulton Co., Georgia|
|David||Son||21||White||Fulton Co., Georgia|
|Sarah||Female||19||White||Fulton Co., Georgia|
|Archibald||Son||17||White||Fulton Co., Georgia|
|Amos||Son||15||White||Fulton Co., Georgia|
|Martin||Son||12||White||Fulton Co., Georgia|
|James||Son||9||White||Fulton Co., Georgia|
|Martha||Female||7||White||Fulton 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:
|Name||Sex||1850 Age||1840 Age||Race||Location|
|James Stewart||Male/Father/Head of Household||42||32||White||Fulton Co., Georgia|
|Susan||Female/Mother||41||31||White||Fulton Co., Georgia|
|David||Son||21||11||Whilte||Fulton Co., Georgia|
|Sarah||Female||19||9||White||Fulton Co., Georgia|
|Archibald||Son||17||7||White||Fulton Co., Georgia|
|Amos||Son||15||5||White||Fulton Co., Georgia|
|Martin||Son||12||2||White||Fulton Co., Georgia|
|James||Son||9||Not born yet|
|Martha||Female||7||Not 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:
|Name||Sex||1840 Age||1840 Age Category||Race||Location|
|James Stewart||Male/Father/Head of Household||32||Male-30 & under 40||Free White||Fulton Co., Georgia|
|Susan||Female/Mother||31||Female-30 & under 40||Free White||Fulton Co., Georgia|
|David||Son||11||Male-10 & under 15||Free White||Fulton Co., Georgia|
|Sarah||Female||9||Female-5 & under 10||Free White||Fulton Co., Georgia|
|Archibald||Son||7||Male-5 & under 10||Free White||Fulton Co., Georgia|
|Amos||Son||5||Male-5 & under 10 OR Under 5 years||Free White||Fulton Co., Georgia|
|Martin||Son||2||Male-Under 5 years||Free White||Fulton Co., Georgia|
|James||Son||Not born yet|
|Martha||Female||Not 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 Males||Free White Females|
|Head of Household||30 & under 40||10 & under 15||5 & under 10||30 & under 40||5 & under 10|
1840 search profile 2 : James Stewart household-Fulton county, Georgia
|Free White Males||Free White Females|
|Head of Household||30 & under 40||10 & under 15||5 & under 10||Under 5 years||30 & under 40||5 & under 10|
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: