Don’t Ignore Early Census Records, by Mary Penner

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 Sarah’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 couldn’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 wife’s sister. But, that’s another story. The story here is that the 1840 census set me on the right track. 

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. Don’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. 

They didn’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 residents’ 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. 

For example, in 1820 the census date was 7 August 1820, yet the census-taker didn’t reach your ancestor’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 aren’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.  Unfortunately, some of those records never made it to the capital.

Check the National Archives website 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. The columns on the actual records usually weren’t labeled, so you need to know what those numbers scratched on the paper mean. When looking at a census record on you’ll see a link near the top of the page labeled “blank census form.”

The data collected changed slightly each year. For example, the 1820 census tallied the number of household members who weren’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 “Wd” 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

What gems have you found in pre-1850 census records? Share your
experiences with us in the comments section below.

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Genealogical writer, researcher, and lecturer Mary Penner resides in New Mexico. She can be reached through her website at:

6 thoughts on “Don’t Ignore Early Census Records, by Mary Penner

  1. The pre 1850 census was instrumental in identifying a great x grandparent. My great grandfather Jacob Barlett was an orphan, and the family did not have any information about his parents. I easily found Jacob Barlett and his brother Isaac living in Reading, Pa. in the 1870 census with a Catharine and Ephriam Barlett. Having a unique name, Ephriam, was easily found in Reading in the 1860 and in Cumru twp in the 1850 census. In both cases he is living with his first wife Susanah and their children Henry F. and Priscillia Elizabeth.

    I found several candidates for Ephriam’s father who had children in the right age range in the 1840 census. I was stumped until I realized that Ephriam was living with a Daniel and Eva Barlett in 1850. Further review of the 1840 census found a Daniel Sr and a Daniel Jr. living side by side in Cumru twp. I guessed that Daniel Jr. was Ephriam brother. This was circumstancially confirmed when I found that the two brothers shared their mother Eva in consecutive census. In 1840 Daniel Jr was living beside Daniel Sr.; in 1850 Daniel Sr and Eva are living with Ephriam; in 1860 with Daniel Jr.. While Eva (died 1885) she lived the rest of her life with Daniel Jr., I assume that she would have been back with Ephriam had not Ephriams’s first wife and children died sometime in the early 1860’s, and he and his second wife, Catharine, and children children moved to Philadelphia about 1871. Ephriam died in 1873 and Catharine died in 1874.

  2. Don’t forget to check the alphabetical spelling……..sometimes a name was put in the wrong order, perhaps because of spelling or poor writing.

    If you can scan most of the township, you might catch another name, which was out of order.

  3. I believe that I need to look at the earlier census and I do not because I feel they are lacking information. Since I have no family to ask I heavily have depended on census records for information I am seeking. I am angry that I can not obtain information from 1890. I feel that I have figured out a mystery of family due to the census (not early records). On my fathers side, his mother seems to have lost her parents at a young age. Only a guess due to the census records. I found my grandmother, her twin sister, a brother and another sister. In the 1900 census I found my grandmother living in a household as a servant. Her twin sister in a seperate household, also as a servant. Their brother in yet another household as a roomer. Their youngest sister was in a “state childrens home”. Yet another reason why it would be nice to have information from the 1890 census. Finding this information leds me to GUESS that their parents, my great grand parents perhaps died between 1890 and 1900. As I said I can only guess to a death date. I only wish some of the earlier census had more information. I guess i could be more patience with the earlier census records.

  4. I found a treat on the 1830 Greene Co. Indiana census. On page 2 (154) of an unknown township the census taker (I’m guessing that’s who did it) drew a picture of a man in tails walking up to a brick house with a paper in his hand. I cannot find it today on Ancestry so maybe it was from several years ago. Very clever.

  5. What a surprise to see familiar Bond Co., Illinois names mentioned in this article! My 3rd great grandfather is the brother of Jesse Gum. Now the trick would be to find the name of the mother of Jesse and James Riley Gum.

  6. Additional information from official State Marriage Records:

    Indiana: Stephen Mills m Mary Miles 29 May 1825 Wayne Co
    Jesse S Gum m Sarah Miles 15 May 1834 Wayne Co

    Illinois Stephen Mills m Sarah Miles Gum 23 Sept 1847
    Sarah is listed as Sarah Sum

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