“I finally found a census record for my ancestor! At least, I think it’s for my ancestor!” As a genealogist, you know the feeling, especially when the census record is from 1840 or earlier. The name looks right with only a slight spelling variation. Location, at least the county, is consistent with other records. But, is this really your ancestor’s family?
In this blog post, I briefly describe content of United States census records from 1790 to the present. Next, I present two tools for evaluating information found in pre-1850 census records. Examples are from my own family tree.
For your files, download blank copies of federal census forms from National Archives, Resources for Genealogists, Charts and Forms: NARA Charts and Forms
Brief history of U.S. census records
To recap, information found on the federal decennial United States Census varies. From 1790 to 1840, censuses listed only heads of household. In 1790, enumerators requested name of the head of household then the number of persons in each of five gender and age categories:
- Free White males aged:
- under 16 years
- of 16 years and upward
- Free White females
- Other free persons
The complexity of census questionnaires increased until more than 50 categories appeared in 1840. 
Beginning in 1850, separate schedules listed free persons and slaves. Schedule 1, Free Inhabitants, listed each person in the household. Instructions to enumerators stated  :
The names are to be written, beginning with the father and mother; or if either, or both, be dead, begin with some other ostensible head of the family; to be followed, as far as practicable, with the name of the oldest child residing at home, then the next oldest, and so on to the youngest, then the other inmates, lodgers and borders, laborers, domestics, and servants.
The person/s listed after the head of household (HOH) may or may not be related to the HOH. In many cases, you can presume that younger persons are children of older persons. Seek other sources to prove the relationships.
For those with Native American and/or slave ancestors in 1850, the census is not complete. “Indians” (a.k.a. Native Americans) who were not taxed were not counted at all. A separate schedule (Schedule 2) recorded slave inhabitants by gender and age under their owner’s name. The Census Mate format (discussed later in this blog) may help.
Beginning in 1880, enumerators listed the relationship of each person to the head of household. Current practice involves a mailed census form to be completed and returned. Some households are then chosen randomly to complete more detailed questionnaires.
Evaluating and deciphering information in the pre-1850 census records
Tool #1: Four-step research strategy
Source: Barry J. Ewell, “Four-step research strategy for pre-1850 U.S. Federal Census,” Genealogy by Barry, 13 February 2016 (http://genealogybybarry.com/genealogy-four-step-research-strategy-for-pre-1850-u-s-federal-census/ : accessed 23 September 2018).
This strategy is useful if you have, at minimum, an 1850 census record.
The steps are:
- Create a family profile using from 1850 census.
- Subtract 10 years from each person’s age.
- Apply the 1840 race/sex/ age category combination to each person.
- Build a household search for the household in the 1840 census.
- Repeat steps 1-4 for each census year from 1830 to 1790.
The created household search criteria are then used to search online databases. I applied this strategy to a family from my extended tree:
Step 1: 1850 census, William Bialey [Bailey].
- Bialy, William W M age 75 Birthplace: NC
- Bialy, Siety W F age 65 Birthplace: NC
- Bialy, Winny W F age 22 Birthplace: Wilkinson co, GA
- Bialy, Benjamin W M age 20 Birthplace: Wilkinson co, GA
- Bialy, Nancy W F age 17 Birthplace: Wilkinson co, GA
Given ages of William and Siety, the younger persons are probably their youngest children but could also be grandchildren.
Steps 2 & 3: 1840, gender/ age categories would be:
- William age 65 M, age 60-70
- Siety age 55 Fe, age 50-60
- Winny age 12 Fe, age 10-15
- Benjamin age 10 M, age 10-15
- Nancy age 7 Fe, age 5-9
Step 4: Household search, 1840 census, Baker county, Georgia. Found three entries for William or Wm Bailey. Only one record listed a male, age 60-70 and a female, age 50-60.  Total of 9 younger persons: 2 males 10-14 (Benjamin +1) ; 1 male 15-19; 3 males 20-29; 1 female 5-9 (Nancy); 2 females 10-14 (Winny + 1)
Gender and age categories fit categories determined in Step 3. As expected, more children were living with William and Siety in 1840. Continue with 1830 census. Identify names of other children and approximate birthdates from other records. Add these children to current record as discovered. See example: Wm Bailey 1840 census with names
Helpful hints: Mr. Ewell presents more helpful census tips in a January 17, 2018, post, “190 Genealogy Articles to help you search the US Census.” http://genealogybybarry.com/category/3-genealogy-rsh/census-rsh/
ADDENDUM: After locating a census record that appears to fit your family, continue by writing names, ages, and other information on the printed record. Add names and ages gleaned from other records. Use colored ink or pen to identify questions such as “Unknown daughter, born 1820-1825.” Here is another example with unknowns and questions added: 1810 Census example 2_John_Creager
Tool #2: CensusMate Worksheet
What if you don’t have an 1850 census for the family? Are you trying to narrow down birth years and you only have pre-1850 census records? CensusMate worksheet may be your answer.
Developed by John L. Haynes, this pre-formatted Excel spreadsheet uses a “timeline format to find ages, names, and birthdates from 1790 -1850 Census Data.”  Add the numbers for each category in the designated spaces, males first, then females. Don’t leave blanks; add a zero if there are no persons in a specific category. There is space to add names and other information although the space is limited.
This example is from my dad’s family tree. Is Richard Postens father of my great-great-great grandfather, Thomas Postens who was born in 1782? I entered gender/age category numbers from 1800, 1810, and 1820 census records. I added names and estimated birth years for two males who could be Richard’s sons. At age 28, Thomas could have married by 1810. Conclusion: Richard Postens could be Thomas’ father. More proof is needed. Richard also had several daughters. ‘D1’ was born between 1775 and 1784. This information narrows search parameters.
In this blog post, I presented two ways to evaluate pre-1850 census records. If you use or have developed other tools, please share in Comments section or email me. I will gladly report in another post.
Pre-1850 census records are interpretive challenges for genealogists. I began planning this post several months ago and really thought that I would find more tools. Maybe I just didn’t look far enough?
What I learned: Barry Elwell’s method. I do something similar but not in the systematic manner that he outlined.
What helped: Finding CensusMate tool about 4 years ago and using it occasionally. Online databases.
What didn’t help: Procrastination. Multiple revisions, trying to keep post to less than 1500 words. Goal achieved: 1300 words + 10.
TO-DO: Continue searching for tools/ methods for analysis of pre-1850 census records. Apply newly discovered methods to my own research. Report as needed in future blog post.
U.S. Department of Commerce, Census Bureau, “History: Through the Decades: Index of Questions: 1840,” (https://www.census.gov/history/www/through_the_decades/index_of_questions/1840_1.html : access 22 September 2018).
 U.S. Census Bureau, Measuring America: The Decennial Censuses from 1790 to 2000 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Commerce, 2002); image copy, Census.gov ((https://www.census.gov/library/publications/2002/dec/pol_02-ma.html : downloaded and printed, 23 September 2018), page 10.
 1850 U.S. Federal Census, Baker county, Georgia, population schedule, , p. 48A (stamped), dwelling 117, family 117, William Bialy [Bailey]; digital images, Ancestry (http://www.ancestry.com : viewed 23 September 2018); citing National Archives & Records Administration, Washington, D.C. microfilm publication M432_61.
 1840 U.S. Federal Census, Baker county, Georgia, population schedule, Newton, p. 35, line 11, Wm Bailey; digital images, Ancestry (http://www.ancestry.com : viewed 23 September 2018); citing National Archives & Records Administration, Washington, D.C., microfilm publication M704, Roll 37.