Finding Family in Pre-1850 Censuses, by Juliana Smith

While the U.S. Censuses for 1850-1930 are among the most popular resources for family historians, the pre-1850 enumerations are among the most overlooked. While they may not provide the same detail as later enumerations, they can still help place your ancestors in a particular location during the census year. The tough part is determining which family is yours.

I was recently searching for my Kelly family in New York in pre-1850 censuses and to help figure out where I need to look, I employed the use of a few charts.

First I created a chart that projected how old each person in the family would be for a particular census year. I used a spreadsheet, but this could easily be done on a sheet of paper by hand with a grid.

Across the top I listed each family members name and the estimated year they were born. Along the side of the grid were all of the census years. Beginning on the line for the first census year that they were alive for, I listed how old I thought they would be in that year. Then I just added ten years to each of these and filled out all the years in which they were alive. Now I had a handy chart to work with for my second step. (I’ve copied a portion of it below.







Next I printed out a blank census form for 1840 from Ancestry and put the initial of each family member in the appropriate age bracket based on the census chart I had created. Using my grid chart made it easy to go across the form and figure out which of the family members fell in each age category. Then I just had to tally them up.

A Couple Things to Consider

  • There may be children listed in the census that died young and that I’m not aware of so if there are extra young children, I shouldn’t dismiss a record. There may also be more than just the one family living in the home. Additional adults may be other relatives or the spouse of one of the older children. For these reasons, I didn’t rule out families who had “extras.”
  • Older children may have moved out. To designate, which children might not be still at home in a particular census year, I circled the tallies for children that would have been twenty or older. I did the same for children who would have been in their upper teens. Since some families lived together even after the children were married, I didn’t want to rule them out, but still want to remind myself that one or more of them may have moved out. It was also a reminder that additional adults of the opposite gender could be spouses.
  • For a person whose birth bridged two categories (e.g., a fifteen-year-old might have fallen in the “ten & under fifteen” category, or in the “fifteen and under twenty” category, depending on when his birthday fell and when the census was taken.), I drew a line across the two categories to remind me that I could be flexible with that one.

Using this template, it was much easier to compare my family to the census records as I browsed through all of the James Kellys in New York. Despite the exceptions to the template, by looking at the individuals who would have most likely have been in the house—typically parents and young children—I was able to rule out most of the James Kellys in New York. Now I will turn to other records, like directories and possibly religious records, to see if I can discern if one of the remaining Kellys is my family.

Ancestry members can search U.S. Federal Census records here.

Juliana Smith has been an editor of Ancestry newsletters for ten years and is author of “The Ancestry Family Historian’s Address Book.” She has written for “Ancestry” magazine and wrote the Computers and Technology chapter in “The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy,” rev. 3rd edition. 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.

11 thoughts on “Finding Family in Pre-1850 Censuses, by Juliana Smith

  1. Good article. But my main proble is not knowing the instructions given to the census taker for the pre-1850 census records. For instance, when he enumerates a family containing an elderly couple and also a young couple with children, whose name is shown as the HEAD OF HOUSEHOLD?…the elderly man because he may own the farm or just because he’s the eldest…or the younger man because he may own the farm and his parents are just his dependents?????????

  2. Thank you for this methodology. I had just been confronted with the issue of needing to go back before 1850 when I read this article. I tried it out immediately and it really helped make sense of the search results. I wss able to eliminate all but a couple possibles. I then mapped the possibles to the same blank census sheet that I used to map my family. This quickly showed matches and differences. Thanks again for such a useful methodology to use on pre-1850 census records.

  3. I use a similar construct but wish the genealogy software or Ancestry could come up with a spreadsheet template such as your chart to combine census info recovered. You use a blank sheet for each census and a chart! How do you then display electronically except as notes or separate census sheets? chb

  4. Good article that I’ve just read. I’ll try the information that you have talked about in the Finding Family Pre – 1850 Census. Thank you again for such a useful methodology on finding your family.

  5. I have done that as well in the past and it worked out really well for me, confusing at first, but practice makes perfect. But now I have just one male member of a family and I do not know his parents, if he had siblings or the number of siblings, only when and where he was born (which would fall in the “tally marks” of those censuses). Finding a male death after that which fits with this man would help but FTM has been unsuccessful in finding parents for him. 🙁 Hello, brick wall! (my person was born 1817)

  6. Immediatelay below the article are the words “Print” in small letters. If you click on the word Print, you will be taken to a page that shows the article in printable form with comments from readers at the end.

  7. Whenever I find an article I like and want a copy of it I check at the bottom to see if it has a “print or comment” attached. If so, I click on it. When the printable version of the article comes up, I right click and go to “Select All”. This highlights the article. From here there are two ways to Print it. Right click and select Print or “Ctrl P” on the keyboard. This brings up the printer page where you can select “Selection” under Page Range and then hit Print.
    I also like to save them to my hard drive so I can find them quickly. Same steps as above until you get to Print. Instead of selecting Print, select Copy, open up a Word Processing Document and Paste it there. You can then save it to your hard drive or print it using the Print function of the Word Processor.

  8. On a few occasions I did pretty much of what you mentioned in the article. In fact I had to go over the same “early” census several times before I was sure. I was checking and re-checking. In fact one time I had to figure out a family and seperate the “seniors” from the “juniors” on time for a certain family. Boy was that confusing!. I did run into a problem one time. I knew my family moved from one state to another. So happens the state they moved to was not a state yet. To this day, I am still not sure if I actually found the family I was looking for. If we know our history it helps to know when states became statehood. Very useful article.

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