Using Ancestry: Identifying Your Family in Pre-1850 Censuses, by Michael John Neill

One hurdle faced by family historians is working in pre-1850 census records. Although only the heads of household are listed, these records do have value. Head of household census records can provide valuable clues about family structure that may not be available in other records. Census records should be included as an integral part of any research plan for 1790-1850 era research.

Assessment of pre-1850 federal census enumerations needs to be done carefully, as occasionally different interpretations can reasonably be made. It is important to note assumptions and track the research process, so that the logic can be reviewed at a later date by the researcher or by other family members. Let’s take a look at four enumerations for a family as they migrate from Kentucky to Indiana in the 1830s. We will see how even these limited enumerations shed some light on the structure of the family of Augusta and Melinda/Belinda Newman.

Do You Have the Right People?
It is imperative to make sure you are actually tracking the correct family, particularly in years when only heads of household are listed. Generally speaking, this would come from an analysis of census enumerations making certain the family structure is relatively consistent from one enumeration to the next, that the enumerations do not blatantly contradict what is known about the family from other records, and that the migration paths suggested by such enumerations are reasonable. The laws of space, time, physics, and biology should not have to be violated in order for the information to be “consistent.”

The following assumptions were made while performing this analysis:

  • Enumerations are reasonably correct and ages are accurate.
  • Households contain parents and their children only.

We Begin in 1830. . .

1830 Census
Kentucky, Nicholas County, page 207
Augusta Newman
3 males under 5
1 male at least 5 and under 10
1 male at least 10 and under 15
1 male at least 30 and under 40

1 female at least 5 and under 10
1 female at least 30 and under 40

On to 1840
Based upon this enumeration, if no member of the household leaves, the Newman household would at least have the following individuals in the 1840 Census:

3 males at least 10 and under 15
1 male at least 15 and under 20
1 male at least 20 and under 25
1 male at least 40 and under 50

1 female at least 15 and under 20
1 female at least 40 and under 50

These ranges were determined by simply adding ten to each of the age ranges in the 1830 enumeration. The actual 1840 enumeration tells a slightly different story:

1840 Census
Indiana, Boone County, page 293
Augusta Newman

1 male under 5
1 male at least 5 and under 10
2 males at least 10 and under 15
1 male at least 15 and under 20
1 male at least 40 and under 50

1 female at least 15 and under 20
1 female at least 40 and under 50

The females are a perfect match to our 1840 progression from the 1830 enumeration and there were apparently no daughters born in the 1830s that survived until the 1840 enumeration. The males are a different story.

Missing Child?
There were two males born during the 1830s that survived until the 1840 enumeration (the two males under 10 years of age). The 1840 progression from the 1830 enumeration indicates there should be three males between the ages of 10 and 15 living in the household in 1840. There are only two. Assuming a child has not been farmed out with other relatives, one could conclude that one of those male children born in the 1825 to 1830 time frame died between the 1830 and 1840 enumerations.

Leaving Home?
The 1840 enumeration “should” also contain a male between 20 and 25 years of age. While this child could have died, it is more likely that he has simply moved out of the household. This will be our conclusion for the oldest child in the 1830 enumeration who is not in the household in 1840. So how many children were there? Based upon the 1830 enumeration, the following children are indicated:

  • Boy A, born between 1815 and 1820 (the male between 10 and 15 in 1830)
  • Boy B, born between 1820 and 1825 (the male between 5 and 10 in 1830)
  • Boy C, born between 1825 and 1830 (a male under 5 in 1830)
  • Boy D, born between 1825 and 1830 (a male under 5 in 1830)
  • Boy E, born between 1825 and 1830 (a male under 5 in 1830)
  • Girl M, born between 1825 and 1830 (the female between 5 and 10 in 1830)

Based upon the 1840 enumeration, the following additional children are indicated:

  • Boy F, born between 1830 and 1835 (the male between 5 and 10 in 1840)
  • Boy G, born between 1835 and 1840 (the male under 5 in 1840)

Additional comments:

  • Boy C, D, or E apparently died in the 1830s.
  • Boy A apparently moved out of the household between 1830 and 1840.

The Parents
It will be assumed that the oldest male and oldest female in each enumeration are August and Melinda. Readers will note that the ages for these two are consistent making the couple born in the 1790s. Of course, just because the ages of the oldest female are consistent from one enumeration to another does not mean the 1830 “wife” is the same as the 1840 “wife.” In this case, other records indicate Augusta was only married once, but that cannot be inferred from the 1830 and 1840 enumerations.

In Later Years…
We follow with the Newmans in the 1850 and 1860 census.

1850 Census
Indiana, Marion County, Wayne Township, dwelling 314
Augusta Newman, aged 57
Belinda Newman, aged 51
David Newman, aged 21
Jesse Newman, aged 15
Joseph Newman, aged 8
1860 Census
Indiana, White County, Princeton Township, dwelling 269
August Newman, aged 66
Belinda Newman, aged 60
Jesse Newman, aged 22
Joseph Newman, aged 17
Anaretta Newman, aged 20

These two enumerations will be analyzed together and then compared with the earlier records. The ages of Augusta and Belinda are consistent with each other and with their apparent 1830 and 1840 enumerations. David appears to have been born about 1829 and Jesse born approximately between 1835 and 1838. Joseph appears to have been born between approximately 1842 and 1843. Anaretta, born approximately 1840 is likely a daughter-in-law or another female relative. She appears unlikely to have been a child as no female in that age range appears in the 1840 enumeration. While admitting census ages are notoriously incorrect, we will tentatively conclude that Jesse is Boy G.

Wrap Up
As you can see, we have been able to shed some light on this family’s structure. However, even with that light some questions will still remain in the shadows. My analysis needs to be written or saved somewhere. This allows me to review it or to share it with others. I will wait to enter any data into my genealogy database until I compare these children with the names and birth dates obtained from other records.

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). 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 or visit his website at, 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

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10 thoughts on “Using Ancestry: Identifying Your Family in Pre-1850 Censuses, by Michael John Neill

  1. Thankyou so much for the clear demonstration showing exactly how to analyze the early census records. I have been shown this before, but it never made sense until your very clear lesson. I’m so grateful!

  2. What makes it really hard is when the father of the family is no longer in the family in 1850 and one has no clue what his first name really was.

  3. While my wife introduced me to the method generally shown above many years ago, I think this is an extremely good explanation, one I wish that I had when I started on all those relatives that appeared almost no where else but in the 1790-1840 census records.

  4. I also could not get to the “printer-friendly” version of this article. Instead I got the message, “The article you requested was not found.”

  5. Very nicely done. This methodology can also be done in reverse, using known family structure to work backward from the 1840 census, even 1850, to eliminate heads of households with similar names. Also, be careful of discounting the likelyhood that ‘missing’ children have gone to live with neighbors or extended family. This has turned up a number of times in my research.

  6. I did this to confirm when my ancestors left Virginia to go to Missouri. There were conflicting reports in the information I had. I knew the names and approximate ages of the siblings so was able to confirm that they were still in Virginia in 1830.

  7. Good analysis, well explained. I offer another possible explanation for the disappearance of Boy C/D/E from 1840 rolls: Boy F could be that apparently absent child. For your family, a boy aged under 5 in 1830 could have been a day-old newborn who conceivably in 1840 was teetering close to 10 years old and thus could have been enumerated as a boy 5 to under 10. As you know, responses to census questions were/are highly dependent upon the informant’s knowledge of the family, as well as to how well the enumerator explains questions in relation to the enumeration date. So the informant may have not known Boy F’s birthday in relation to the enumeration day (June 1 for both 1830 and 1840) or the enumerator could easily have forgotten to clarify the child’s age is his birth fell so close to June 1.

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