A Fresh Take on Working with Pre-1850 U.S. Censuses

The 1850 U.S. Census was a landmark census. It was the first to enumerate an entire household and not merely the head of household. Earlier census records name the head of the house and then provides a breakdown of the household by the numbers of people who lived there. The other householders were grouped by race, gender, and age. For households with enslaved as well as free people, the Black and Mulatto people on the land and in the household were also grouped by age, gender, and whether they were free or enslaved.

1840 U.S. Census (population schedule), Northampton County, North Carolina, sheet 26, Ransome Roberts household, https://ancestry.com, subscription database, accessed February 2022. Courtesy of Ancestry.com

I noted the details provided by pre-1850 census records down on paper in the past. I still do as a form of backing up my research. However, it can become cumbersome trying to find a specific research binder out of a collection of around 100 or so binders. I started an online family tree workaround as a result.

As with much of my online family tree work involving poorly documented people, I use and adapt the Beyond Kin methodology. You can find out more bout that research approach by visiting https://beyondkin.org. In short, Beyond Kin was originally created to work with enslaved populations cited in enslavers’ documents. I have used this approach to successfully work with communities of enslaved people (Using Slave Lists in Your Enslaved Ancestors Research https://genealogyadventures.net/2020/08/25/using-slave-lists-in-your-enslaved-ancestors-research), free people of color (Researching Poorly Documented Ancestors: Harriet Roberts (Northampton County, NC) https://genealogyadventures.net/2020/12/20/researching-poorly-documented-ancestors-harriet-roberts-northampton-county-nc), and my ancestors who moved into Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina early in the Colonial period.

It hadn’t occurred to me to use the same approach using pre-1850 census records. Some very challenging client-based research work involving free people of color and poor white families in North Carolina prompted me to give the Beyond Kin approach a try using census records rather than using documents like enslavers’ wills and estate inventories, deeds of sales, hiring-out-agreement, and the like.

The process using census records follows along the same lines.

  1. I create a label on my tree using the census reference (e.g. Cersei Lannister’s 1840 Northampton County, North Carolina Household). The label acts as a “parent”.
  2. Everyone in the household is listed individually as a “child”. Their birth year will not look “normal” when you add it for each person. A white, female in the “under 5 years old” category on an 1840 census, for instance, would be given the following birth year information: “Bet. 1835-1840”. Ancestry doesn’t like birth years entered like this. However, this is about us as researchers, and our research needs, and not an online family tree provider’s coding limitations. We do what we must do to break through the brick walls our poorly documented ancestors present to our research.
  3. I do this for every pre-1850 census that involves an ancestor’s household. This makes it easier to see how that household increased and decreased over time. For instance, I can track a female under 10 years old in in 1830 to the 13- or 14-year-old female in 1840, and then note the lack of a 23- or 24-year-old female in the same household in 1850. The likelihood is she may have married. Then it’s time to hit the marriage records in that county to see what females with the family surname, born between say, 1827 to 1830, got married. And, of course, research each potential ancestral line to see if she could be the person cited in the 1830 and 1840 census records I reviewed. This may not be what folks want to hear, but I take an initial stance that the ThruLine shown for an ancestral line is wrong. Research is what proves it correct or incorrect. If I can’t prove that it is correct, it just stays there as a suggestion, an additional kind of shaking green leaf.

There is an important caveat to this. Everyone enumerated in these pre-1850 census records as a number may not be the head of household’s children.  That’s so important that I had to bold and underline it.

I have broken down households to reveal that some of the inhabitants in these pre-1850 households were the head of household’s nieces/nephews, younger siblings, a parent (or both!), an aunt/uncle, a grandchild, a son or daughter-in-law (or their parent), a servant, farm laborers – you get the idea. We can’t automatically assume that every young person in a household was the head of the house’s child.

An example of this working practice appears below.

Ransom Roberts was a free man of color who lived in Northampton County, North Carolina. Thankfully, he died with a will which confirmed his children. Researching each child provided their respective years of birth. From this, I could work out who they were in census records spanning 1820 to 1840. This, in turn, revealed there were a few people who were not accounted for in Ransome’s household in the decades preceding 1850. Their identities remain a mystery. Revealing the known information about Ransome’s family in the manner that I’ve done makes the unknown much easier to spot. You will see his children beneath his wife. Then there are pseudo spouses for the individual 1820, 1830, and 1840 census years. In this instance, I still must identify an unknown 14–25-year-old male seen in the 1820 census. I also must identify a male under the age of 10 who lived in the household in 1830. In 1840, there are 2 unknown males between 10-23 (see the image above).

I take in information by writing it down. However, I interpret information and make connections visually. This methodology enables me to do both.

I’d love to hear if you have success breaking down a brick wall with this approach!

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