Starting Pre-1850 Census Searching, by Michael John Neill

The difficulty with American census records before 1850 is that only the heads of household are listed. All other members of the household appear, but are hidden under tally marks. This week we look at finding a family in the 1840 census. Future columns will discuss additional situations and problems with using census records before the 1850 enumeration.

General Suggestions for Pre-1850 Census Searching

  • Have maps so that the relative positions of all counties, states, and other political jurisdictions involved are readily available. Maps should be contemporary to the problem under study. Current maps may lead to incorrect conclusions.
  • Consider all reasonable matches when performing searches. Don’t assume the first “close” match is the right person or family. Use adequately broad search parameters (consider also performing separate wildcard and Soundex searches) to make certain that all reasonable matches to the desired person have been returned. You may want to include adjacent states if necessary.
  • Use all known and extant post-1840 records to determine which individuals likely were living in the household in a given census year, what their approximate ages were in that year, and where they probably were living. Keep in mind that census-takers occasionally make mistakes, tally marks can be put in the wrong column, and that names can easily be spelled incorrectly. 
  • Compare the age groupings of the located families with the known ages of the individuals.
  • Remember that the oldest male in the household is not necessarily the head of the household. 
  • Pay special attention to female heads of household.


Searching for the Newmans in the 1840 Census
This week we look for William and Rebecca Newman in the 1840 census. Our work actually begins after 1840, locating the family in as many census records as possible in order to learn as much about them as we can before beginning. William and Rebecca were located in the following years in the following locations:

  • 1870 Census
    Prairie Township, Hancock County, Illinois, dwelling number 152.
  • 1860 Census
    Princeton Township, White County, Indiana, dwelling number 345.
  • 1850 Census
    District Number 97, Rush County, Indiana, dwelling number 85.

Based upon these enumerations, William was born between 1817 and 1818 and Rebecca was born between 1818 and 1820. Assuming the ages are correct, William should be in his twenties in the 1840 enumeration and Rebecca should be in her twenties or perhaps even her late teens. Of course the genealogist should always keep in the back of their mind the possibility that an age can easily be incorrect in any one enumeration.

Family tradition indicated that Rebecca was living with her parents in Indiana when she married William Newman and extant records indicated all their known children were born in Indiana. As a result the search for them in the 1840 census is initially focused on that state. Based upon William and Rebecca’s ages, they were likely a “recently” married couple in 1840. Their oldest child, William, would have been born around 1841 according to the 1850 and 1860 enumerations. It is always possible that his date of birth is incorrect from these listings or that the Newmans had one or more children before William who were enumerated in 1840 but not in 1850 (perhaps due to death as children).

A search of the 1840 census index at Ancestry.com for a William Newman living in Indiana resulted in five matches. One match is in Rush County, where the desired William is enumerated in 1850. However, the genealogist should not rush to immediate judgment and assume this is the William for whom we are searching. Matches were located in the Indiana counties of Gibson, Hendricks (2), Rush, and Decatur.

Decatur County is directly south of Rush County and Hendricks County is “roughly” in between Rush and White, where William is enumerated in 1860. Gibson County is in the southwestern corner of the state, a significant distance from the others.

The Entries
The entries for the William Newmans can be found online in the Ancestry.com Census Collection.

#1 William Newman in Gibson County
The apparent husband and wife in this enumeration are in their forties (too old for our couple), with five children under the age of fifteen and a female between sixty and seventy. On the surface, this household appears to be that of a couple who has been married approximately ten years with a mother or mother-in-law living with them. Based upon the likely family structure and the relative location of Gibson County to the other counties where the known William lived, this does not appear to be the desired family.

#2 William Newman in Hendricks County 
The apparent husband and wife in this enumeration match the age of the desired couple. One male child under five makes this entry a possibility, since our couple could have had a child by 1840.

#3 William Newman in Hendricks County 
The apparent husband and wife in this enumeration match the age of the desired couple, but also have two females under the age of five. It could be the desired William and family, except that both “children” would have to have died by 1850 for this family to fit the later enumerations.

#4 William Newman in Rush County
This household only contains an apparent couple in their twenties. The information it contains is consistent with the desired William’s later enumerations and the residence is consistent with what is known about William.

#5 William Newman in Decatur County
This household appears to be headed by a couple in their thirties, with three girls under the age of ten. The fact that the ages of the parents are both of coupled with three female children who are not in other records, makes this entry not a likely match.

As I went through the five possibilities, William #1 and #5 seemed very unlikely given the ages of the apparent head of household and the distance of Gibson County from the other counties. If I had doubts, I could search the 1850 census for these individuals to see if they remained in the same county ten years later. That would help me to completely eliminate them from consideration.

Based solely upon the census analysis, the Rush County William appears to be the desired one, but I am not completely. Both of the Hendricks County Williams are “persons of interest” as their details to not significantly conflict and they should be included in any continued analysis on this family.

As “matches” are eliminated from consideration, it’s important to make clear notes in my records as to why they were removed from consideration. It may be later that I discover a flaw in my reasoning or a detail that was overlooked.

One Last Detail
One last detail in this case seals the deal. The William and Rebecca Newman of interest are known to have married in Rush County, Indiana on 25 July 1839; Rebecca’s maiden name was Tinsley. This adds additional support to the thought that the 1840 Rush County William Newman is the desired person. The presence of an “E B Tinsley” on the same census page is circumstantial evidence, but it would not be unheard of for a newly wed couple to be living near a set of parents shortly after their marriage. Unfortunately the Hendricks County 1840 census enumerations (at least for the parts of the county I was using) are alphabetical in nature, thus eliminating any geographic clues that can sometimes be obtained from the order of names in a census.

Another important note is that since William and Rebecca were recently married at the time of the 1840 census, they easily could have been enumerated with one of their families. If this had been the case, William would never have appeared in the index and their entry would be “hidden” in the age categories on someone else’s enumeration.

In later columns we will look at other pre-1850 census records where there are less details to use and more individuals to separate. I think we will leave the Smiths to the editor . . . after all that is her last name!

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Michael John Neill is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is currently a member of the board of the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS) (www.fgs.org). He conducts seminars and lectures nationally on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry Magazine. You can e-mail him at mjnrootdig@myfamily.com or visit his website at
www.rootdig.com, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

Michael’s Schedule

  • 5-10 March 2007
    Genealogy Computing Week, Galesburg, Illinois
  • 14 April 2007
    St. Charles, Missouri, all-day computer workshop

9 thoughts on “Starting Pre-1850 Census Searching, by Michael John Neill

  1. This article was very helpful and informative. I’ve looked at the pre-1850 censuses, but felt lost without the rest of the family’s given names and haven’t used these as fully as I could. Thank you.

  2. Thanks Michael! In a previous comment I had asked for more on pre-1850 but I had to laugh at your last comment as I have not only Jones but Smith and Hall in my family tree! I have been lucky enough so far to find the Hall’s and Smith’s in 1840 as they purchased land and stayed in same county thru several census. Have not been able to go farther back however so looking forward to more hints.
    Carolyn

  3. You are welcome, Carolyn. We are working on more during the pre-1850 time period. It is definitely more difficult when the people under study were frequent movers. I do have Smiths, Jones, and Browns…all moving from Kentucky/Tennessee into Missouri in the early to mid-19th century. Michael

  4. But you leave the Smiths to me? C’mon, I’m still dealing with Kellys, Dohertys, and McLoughlins. I have my hands full. ;)

  5. Michael,
    I hadn’t looked at the 1840 Census for several years but, William Newman in Gibson County caught my eye. I viewed the census and living two doors away was my husband’s gggrandfather,John Morris, brother-in-law to William Newman. I have in my possession the daily journal of John Morris starting in 1842 up until his death in 1851. I thought that in 1840 the Morris family was still living in neighboring Vanderburgh County,IN.

    Thank you for your excellent tips!

  6. a lot of my ancesters names all the male children the same name for generations being careful if posssible to get them straight takes an act of Congress.

  7. Was there an 1840 agriculture census, which would likely place adjacent and nearby heads of family in close order?

  8. Good article, I used some of these methods and they do work. I am stuck with locating death and family during 1860 to 1870. 1870 they vanish, she was receiving pension but can not find out his death. It was before 1880 and after 1860. I keep pluging away. Trying to find out if the Army Pension would have record of death. Keep up the good work and thanks for tips.

  9. The importance of keeping the current maps handy is strategic. In searching Tennessee, for example, it was very confusing regarding who lived in what county until I studied the dates the counties were formed in conjunction with maps of the locations. Good article. Thanks.

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