Using Searching Pre-1850 Censuses, by Juliana Smith

After last week’s column, I was determined to go back and find my Kelly family in some missing census years. I decided to focus on pre-1850 records, which I often find myself shying away from, and since I had found part of the family in 1850, I decided to move back methodically and began with 1840.

Since these earlier census records (pre-1850) only list the head of household (and identify other householders by age group and occasionally some very basic information), locating your ancestors in them can be challenging to say the least. In today’s column, I thought I’d share some tips I’ve found helpful in using these early enumerations.

Set Up a Sample Census Entry for the Family
In last week’s article, I referred to a form I created in a spreadsheet to keep track of census records I found for the family. I used the estimated ages for the family from that form to fill in a blank 1840 census form showing what the family’s entry in the census might look like. (Blank forms for all U.S. federal census years can be found online at

So for example, using the estimates I had, I would expect to find under males, one in either the “5 and under 10” or the “10 and under 15” listing (his birth year is estimated as 1830), one in the “20 and under 30” listing, and one in the “50 and under 60” listing, doing the same with the females in the family. This sample entry can be used as a guide now when I browse through the entries for James Kelly in New York City that year. Much easier than trying to do the math for each entry!

Here’s the Tricky Part
The proverbial fly in the ointment comes in trying to figure out what family members were still at home at the time, or whether there was more than one family in the household.

With my Kellys, I found a potential match that would seem to indicate that the latter was the case. The match was in the same ward where I found part of the family in 1850. To sort out who may have been included, I transcribed the entry into another census form and then below it added the names of the family members with their estimated ages marked in the appropriate fields. As I tallied the results, I found that all of the children in the household fit neatly into their categories. There are discrepancies as to the age of the head of household, but only by a few years. In another conflict, his wife doesn’t appear in any of the columns, although there is a much older woman (aged eighty to ninety) enumerated with them. There are also additional children in the house, one matching the age of a known grandchild of the head of household. There are also several “extra” males in the house with ages ranging from around twenty to forty. These could be spouses of the grown daughters or perhaps cousins.

City Directories
For my Kelly research, I have gathered city directory listings for the 1830s through the 1850s. For many of those years, our Kellys are easy to pick out because of their occupation of manufacturing artificial flowers. (The 1840 census entry mentioned above also notes that six of the individuals were engaged in “manufacture and trade,” which would seem to fit.) Using the directory entries and plotting them on a map for census years is helpful in narrowing down my search and determining whether I have the right ward. I’m also looking at other Kellys who share that address to try to identify the extra people in the enumeration.

More Follow-Up
Clearly, I will need to locate more records to identify my Kelly relatives, but locating them (or at least some likely suspects) in these early enumerations will help me to determine where to begin my search during those years. I’ll be looking at churches in the area and doing more extended research on individuals who share a connection, whether it is an address, a workplace, or an occupation found in directories. I’ll be looking for these individuals in both earlier and later enumerations as well. With a little patience, I will hopefully be able to sort out the pieces for this interesting family. Sure, it’s a challenge, but the thrill of finding them at last and filling in those blank spots makes it worthwhile!

Juliana Smith has been the editor of newsletters for more than seven years and is author of The Ancestry Family Historian’s Address Book. She has written for Ancestry Magazine and Genealogical Computing. Juliana can be reached by e-mail at: [email protected], but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.

8 thoughts on “Using Searching Pre-1850 Censuses, by Juliana Smith

  1. I have written you before about other things, and you have posted a picture of my Mystery Woman in your pictures section. I thank you for that. I’m hoping someone will see her and contact me.

    But this time I just wanted to say how much I love your column. You give us valuable information, but do it in a way that makes me want to hurry up to the next paragraph to see what else you are going to say!

    Thank you for sharing your valuable knowledge and insight. I love the way you make it personal, telling us about your search for this person or that family or helping find homes for other’s lost relative information. It’s the personal touch that keeps me coming back.

    Thank you 🙂
    Barb Grainger 🙂

  2. Juliana,
    Your article made me think of my Irish McCaffery/possible Kelly in NYC. My Patrick g.grandfather was born in NYC and orphaned in about 1874/75 from there he went to upstate NY and married into the Moran family,but the question is where and why was he orphaned/ Ah yes those Irish!
    So maybe I will find them yet! Thanks Love your articles!
    Nancy in AK

  3. I too was searching for my Kelly relatives, John and Catherine when I read on of your articles a few years back. It gave me the incentive to dig deeper. While I have not found them all I have most of the blanks filled in and have met some distant cousins along the way. Thank you for your articles and tips. Linda in Texas

  4. I was woundering if you have any helpful ideas on tracing family pre 1850 when the names are repeating and are all around the same age?

  5. Could some of the “extra males” (ages 20-40) in the 1850 Kelly household have been lodgers? Many of my ancestors kept lodgers, who often were people coming from a rural area to the city to work and needing a place to stay. Occasionally one of my ancestors was a lodger living with another family!

  6. Juliana,
    I’ve had the genealogy bug for three years now and enjoy it as a hobby. My wife does not understand the interest in looking up “dead People” but all of you out there understand. We are happy if we search for 2 hours and find a morsel of information. The census forms by Randy under item 2 above is a great site for a summary of census understanding. I have found my morsel for today!

    Thanks, Norm

  7. When searching a pre 1850 census and finding too many children to match with later census records, I have searched nearby grave yards and found children with matching last names and ages. At times they have parents names on the stones.

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