The earliest U.S. census schedules, 1790-1840, furnish only the names of the free heads of family, not of other family members. These schedules totaled the number of other family members, without name, by free or slave status. Free, white individuals were also grouped by age and sex categories from 1790 through 1810 - a categorization that eventually applied to other persons. The age categories also increased each year, from two age groups for free white males only in 1790, to twelve age groups for free whites and six age groups for slaves and free colored persons in 1840.
Since the pre-1850 census records don't identify names (other than head of household) or family relationships, you may be wondering what they can tell you about your ancestors. Pre-1850 census records can be used to:
- track your ancestors movements prior to 1850
- distinguish between individuals with the same name
- identify possible children that you may not be aware of
- identify possible parents for your ancestor
- identify possible relatives among neighbors
Sorting Out Who's WhoWhen I research in the pre-1850 census records, I begin by creating a list identifying each individual, their age, and the range of birth years supported by their given age. Looking at the family of Louisa May Alcott in the 1840 census of Concord, Massachusetts, for example:
A.B. Alcott (Amos Bronson Alcott), age 40-49 (b. 1790-1800) 1799
Female (wife Abigail?), age 40-49 (b. 1790-1800) 1800
Girl (Anna Bronson?), age 10-14 (b. 1825-1831) 1831
Girl (Louisa May?), age 5-9 (b. 1831-1836) 1832
Girl (Elizabeth Sewell?), age 5-9 (b. 1831-1836) 1835
*the youngest daughter, May, was born in July 1840...after the date of the 1840 census
Tip! Men of the same name referred to as Sr or Jr weren't necessarily Father and Son. These designations were often used to distinguish between two different people of the same name in the area - Sr for the elder, and Jr for the younger.This method can actually be used to sort out possible parents for your ancestors as well. In researching my Owens ancestors in Edgecombe County, N.C., I've created a large chart of all of the Owens men listed in the pre-1850 census records, along with the members of their households and the age brackets. While I still haven't been able to confirm exactly who goes where, this method did help me narrow down the possibilities.
Narrowing Down Birth DatesUsing several U.S. census records, you can often narrow down the ages of these early ancestors. To do this, it helps to create a list of the ages and possible birth years for each census year in which you can find your ancestor. Census records can help narrow down the birth year of Amos Bronson Alcox/Alcott, for example, to a range between 1795 and 1800. To be honest, you can get that range for him from a single census record (either 1800 or 1810), but having that same range possible in multiple censuses increases your likelihood of being correct.
Amos B. Alcox/Alcott
1840, Concord, Middlesex, Massachusetts
head of household, age 40-49 (1790-1800)
1820, Wolcott, New Haven, Connecticut
one of the 2 males age 16-25 (1795-1804)
1810, Wolcott, New Haven, Connecticut
1 male, age 10-15 (1795-1800)
1800, Wolcott, New Haven, Connecticut
male, age 0-4 (1795-1800)
His actual date of birth is 29 Nov 1799, which fits right in.
Next > Digging Up Deaths