I knew that Sarah Gum married Stephen Mills in 1847. The 1850 census record for Stephen and Sarah showed five children aged six to sixteen with the surname Gum. Clearly, a Gum man lurked in Sarahâ€™s past.
But, no marriage record existed in that county between a man with the last name Gum and a woman named Sarah. Meanwhile, I noted that a sixteen-year-old with the surname Mills also resided in the household in 1850, which suggested that Stephen had likely been married before, too. Again, I couldnâ€™t find a marriage record in that county for Stephen and his presumed first wife.
So, I turned my attention to the 1840 census. Aha. There was Stephen Mills, and guess who lived right next door? Jesse Gum. Now I was getting somewhere.
More digging revealed that not only were Stephen and Jesse neighbors, they were also brothers-in-law. Their first wives, Mary and Sarah, were sisters. So, the widower Stephen married his wifeâ€™s sister. But, thatâ€™s another story. The story here is that the 1840 census set me on the right track.Â
Family historians rely heavily on census records to open all kinds of ancestral doors. But, too often we slam the door shut on census records prior to 1850. The 1850 and all subsequent census years include the names and ages of everyone in the household–very handy.
The 1790 through 1840 census records, however, list only the head of the household and give approximate ages for everyone else–not as handy. Donâ€™t count out the early census records, though; they could provide just the boost your research needs.
Some tips for using early census records:
1. For 1790-1820, the census date was the first Monday in August. The 1830 and 1840 census date was 1 June. This is important to remember because the census-takers occasionally had to slog through remote countryside, often on foot, trying to track down citizens.Â
They didnâ€™t even reach some households for a year or more after the census date. For the 1790 census, U.S. marshals (the first census-takers) pounded on residentsâ€™ doors collecting information for nearly seventeen months. No matter when the census-taker showed up, though, the data was supposed to reflect the household conditions on the census date.Â
For example, in 1820 the census date was 7 August 1820, yet the census-taker didnâ€™t reach your ancestorâ€™s door until 7 August 7 1821. Suppose a child was born on 8 August 8 1820 and another one showed up on 6 August 1821. Technically, neither of those children should have been counted in the 1820 census. This time lag often led to confused answers and, for genealogists today, perplexing data.
2. For the 1790-1820 censuses, the census-takers had to supply their own paper and draw their own lines and columns on the page. Plus, they had to make two sets of copies of every page. Some enumerators rose to this penmanship challenge more handily than others. Crooked and haphazard looking census pages arenâ€™t unusual.
3. Up until 1830, the original census records were retained by district court clerks in each state. In 1830 Congress ordered that the 1790-1820 records be sent to Washington.Â Unfortunately, some of those records never made it to the capital.
Check the National Archives websiteÂ to see a list of the early census records known to exist.
4. When plowing through early census records, get census forms that identify each column.Â The columns on the actual records usually werenâ€™t labeled, so you need to know what those numbers scratched on the paper mean. When looking at a census record on Ancestry.com youâ€™ll see a link near the top of the page labeled â€œblank census form.â€
The data collected changed slightly each year. For example, the 1820 census tallied the number of household members who werenâ€™t citizens, as well as the number of persons engaged in agriculture, commerce, and manufacturing. Also, be on the lookout for extemporaneous notations by the enumerators. One 1820 Massachusetts census-taker thoughtfully included the initials â€œWdâ€ after all of the widows.
5. Finally, remember to check the neighbors. Family groups often clustered near each other. Unfortunately, some Type-A census-takers, when copying their records, alphabetized everyone on their lists, nixing the neighbor bonus for researchers.
You can search early U.S. Census Records at Ancestry.com.
What gems have you found in pre-1850 census records? Share your
experiences with us in the comments section below.
Genealogical writer, researcher, and lecturer Mary Penner resides in New Mexico. She can be reached through her website at: www.marypenner.com.