Census Records


Contributing Writer
Janet Wahlberg

Census records are one of the most basic resources for doing genealogical research. As most of you are aware, the Federal Census began in 1790 and continues to the present day and are repeated every ten years. Many states have also recorded a census of their populations at varying times over history. These state and federal censuses recording have developed and changed over time, collecting an amazing array of facts.

The 1850 Census was the seventh federal census and for the first time the government attempted to collect information on every member of every household in the United States. Prior to 1850 only the head of household was named with the remaining members of the household noted as a tick mark and divided into age groups and gender. With the 1850 Census you have the names, ages, and gender of the family members as well as others that might be found in the household at the time that the census was recorded.

The heading of the sheet lists the town, county and state being enumerated, the date of the enumeration and the person who recorded it. There were thirteen columns of information collected. Columns one and two list of the house and the family in the order that they were visited. I might point out at this time that those enumerated in the census were the Free inhabitants, white, black or mulatto. Native Americans were handled in a couple of ways as I will describe below.

As you look across the sheet you will find the name, age, gender and color of the person. This is followed by a column that lists an occupation for all males over the age of 15. Most often the occupation is listed only for men or boys who are employed. Following the question on occupations, you find a column that lists the value of any real estate owned. Where a person was born is in the next column, noted by state, territory, or country. Column ten asks if you were married within that past year. Column eleven notes school attendance in the past year and column twelve asks about anyone over the age of 20 who cannot read or write. Column thirteen asks an interesting collection of questions. It asks if the person is deaf, dumb, blind, insane or idiotic, a pauper or a convict. Tick marks in this column may lead you to other records on these individuals.

There are several other interesting facts about the 1850 Census. The census was not taken until October and November of that year and the government insisted that children born after June 1st not be listed in the census. However, anyone who died after June 1st was included. I offer this tidbit of information to help you when making educated guesses on birth and death dates. For the first time each census enumerator received the same set of instructions making the results much more uniform and helped to title the 1850 Census as the first modern census.

1850 saw the beginning of the additional schedules. These were separate pages and covered several topics: Slave, Manufacturing, Agriculture, and Mortality. Each of these contains an incredible amount of information and are well worth your time.

Native Americans who lived on the reservations or other unsettled tracts of land were not included in the general Census and were referred to as “Indians”. The instructions say that Indians not taxed (meaning on reservations) were not to be enumerated. If they were enumerated, they were listed in one of the established categories, white, black, or mulatto. So, if your ancestor looked “dark” and was an Indian, chances are they were recorded as M for mulatto. There was no “Indian” category until 1860.

As you use the 1850 Census or any other census record that you find your family members in, I heartily recommend that you read a description of that census. Then armed with this information, scour every column for the information contained in it. CONFESSION TIME: Until I was writing this column for the paper, I had never paid any attention to column number ten. It is the one that asks if you were married within the last year. That information could have been a real help for estimating marriage dates as marriage records can be hard to find during this era.

One final bit of information is that the Chautauqua County Genealogical society has published a transcription of the 1850 Census, and it can be purchased by contacting the Society at Box 404 Fredonia, NY 14063.

To read Janet Walberg’s previous genealogy columns or to delve deeper into her writings and insights for searching out and recording your own family’s genealogy, please go to jamestowngazette.com and visit Janet’s own web page.