How to Use Pre-1850 Censuses for Genealogy Research

February 21, 2012 at 3:19 am | Posted in Genealogy Research Strategies | 1 Comment
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1790 to 1840 Census Worksheet by Dollarhide
1790 to 1840 Census Worksheet by Dollarhide

Many genealogists, including myself, have cut our research teeth on the US Censuses.  Why not, they are an excellent tool for identifying family relationships, building personal timelines, opening doors to military and land research, and much more.

Plus in the Internet-age, it is much, much easier to find someone using a database than fishing through reels of microfilm even when we are aided by handy paper indexes.  You simply can move through more spellings, more options in a fraction of the time compared to 10 years ago.

Pre-1850 US Censuses

For those having buzzed back multiple generations working from the 1930 US Census back to the 1850 US Census quickly and easily, there may be no research hurdle that seems insurmountable.  And I’m sure there isn’t – until you hit that 1840 US Census.  And like a bucket of cold water poured all over your notes, you realize that Uncle Sam did you no favors by listing only the heads of household by name and grouped the rest of the family by sex and age range.  The place of birth, the race (white or “colored”), and whether the person is a naturalized foreign born citizen (1830 & 1840 Censuses) do offer some clues.  But nonetheless, research of this type is much more challenging than post-1850 Census research.

The Pre-1850 Census Research Challenge

 The challenge when diving into this research is parsing families with skeleton-like data to distinguish them.  I mean when you don’t have names tied to precise – if sometimes inaccurate – birthdates as we have post-1850, it can be pretty tricky to make sure you’ve identified the right person or the right family. Conversely, it can be rather easy to run your research down the wrong tree branch and build a great tree for someone else.  How frustrating is that?

The challenge is how to take a family that you’ve identified in the 1850 Census and track them back in time through the 1840 Census, 1830 Census, and so on.

A Strategy for Successful Census Research Pre-1850

Tracking One Family Back in Time

The strategy to use is to create a census-like profile of the family that models the information gathered in each Census, then try to match this profile up to the data in the appropriate census – admittedly accounting for the 10-year difference in time.

For example, a family may have in 1850 a white family with mother (age 45), father (age 47), and two children (boy age 15, girl age 7).  When you turn to the 1840 Census to find them, subtract 10 years from each age (mother 35, father, 37, boy 5, and girl (minus 3 or not yet born).  Then put those ages/sex/race combinations in the appropriate just as the census taker would have captured the data.  Female (mother)  – 30-39, Male (father) 30-39.  Because the boy is 5 he could be in one of two categories – and male 5 and under or 5-9.  You’d want to check in both categories.

Use the name of the head of household as an identifier for the family in the 1840 Census.   And fortunately, in this case, the father would probably be the head of household in both the 1850 and 1840 Census given the ages.  Additionally, you’ll want to narrow your search geographically as best you can to limit the possibilities.

THE Tool for Pre-1850 Census Analysis

The Census Book: A Genealogist’s Guide to Federal Census Facts, by William Dollarhide that is the “gospel” on anything and everything related to the US Censuses.  What were the forms used, when was the data collected, what data was collected, what are the Soundex and Miracode, and anything else you’d want to know about the US Censuses.  Further, there is extensive information on state censuses.  (Yes, some individual states and territories did independent censuses based on their own schedules.)

I highlight the Dollarhide book because he has the most wonderful form for pre-1850 multi-census analysis.  See above image.  In this you can transcribe the information from each census using hash marks per age/sex/race range to signify each family member.  The process is to transcribe the most current census relevant to your ancestor that dates pre-1850, then work back in time transcribing data from each census –  1830, 1820, 1810 – in the respective columns.  If you have the same family in each census the data should correlate over the years and paint a very, very clear picture of your ancestor’s life.

As great as this tool is, I would give my ancestor’s right arm for a digital version that can be edited.  Working with this tool on paper  is super. (By the way you can make copies from the forms in the back of the book, The Census Book: A Genealogist’s Guide to Federal Census Facts.)  But as I’ve said before, I like to work in the digital world, too, and for an archival version, I’d love to have a digital copy.  But until then, paper it is.

In conclusion…

Don’t let the dramatic change in census format from 1850 to 1840 throw you.  Give yourself time and permission to get comfortable with the difference, enjoy the learning process, and dive in.  Who knows, whole worlds of your ancestors may open up to you.

Have you ventured into the world of pre-1850 Censuses?  How did it go?  Do you have any tricks or tools you’ve found helpful?  Let me know.

Happy Researching.


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  1. […] Remember that you can revise the workbook to include any census listings of your choice, but I would recommend only including those from 1850 and later where each person in the household is listed. Better forms are available to track censuses between 1790-1840 that only list the head of household, with everyone else represented by a tick mark in broad age groupings. An example by Bill Dollarhide is featured here. […]

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