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Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill 8/8/2002

Categorizing Pre-1850 Census Records

This week, we'll look at some pre-1850 census records and see what they tell us about a family under study. Images of the census records discussed in this article are online at:

Census work is "relatively easy" until one gets to American Federal census records before 1850. Pre-1850 census records only name heads of household and simply count other household members by using age categories. Any analysis of pre-1850 census entries takes a certain amount of work and organization.

Where To Start?
I decided to revisit the census entries for my ancestor Thomas Chaney. He is enumerated in Southampton Township, Bedford County, Pennsylvania from 1810 through 1850. For now, we'll look at just the 1810 through 1840 census entries where no household members are listed individually. These are also the census entries that most likely contain Thomas' children while they are still living at home.

Heads of Household Only
The categories and aggregate totals as used in the census were not the easiest way for me to analyze Thomas' household. For the purposes of my analysis, I chose to list the various people in the household separately, as a "male (or female) born between year x and year y." The years listed in the analysis are not really exact, but I found it easier to interpret the data if I left out all the cautionary clauses regarding the years of birth.

What Are Those Cautionary Clauses?
A typical age range as stated in the census is "of 10 and under 20 years of age." This would result in an actual age range of ten to nineteen years as of the date of the census (which in our study would theoretically be in early August in 1810 and 1820 and 1 June in 1830 and 1840), which would result in a range of years of birth ten to nineteen years before the year of the census. However, if the nineteen year old had not yet had their birthday, they actually would have turned twenty during the census year and could have been born twenty years before the year of the census.

Someone born in 1810 may be nine on the date of the census and turn ten later in the year, making her year of birth actually 1800 instead of 1801. Problems with the "ends" of the age ranges are more likely to occur when making the jump from one census to another when the actual date of the census has changed significantly (as it does from 1820 to 1830).

For now, I won't worry about this possibility, but I will keep this potential problem in mind should inconsistencies in my results appear. Given that I am trying to get an overview of the family structure and that census ages are not known for always being exactly precise, I'll keep this possibility on the back burner during my analysis.

For now it should be enough to remember that the end years on the ranges of birth are not necessarily exact. There are some other assumptions I also made when performing the analysis. These should also be kept in mind.

Assumptions About Thomas' Pre-1850 Entries
1) The census ages are correct and consistent for each individual from year to year. This assumption is a tall order, but I have to start somewhere.

2) Children of Thomas were enumerated in his household until they established their own household, married, or died.

3) There were no multiple births within the family. When three children (as in 1810) are listed within the same age range, they are actually different ages.

4) The analysis was conducted to minimize the number of distinct people who had lived in Thomas' household during the entire run of census years.

5) Children listed in the household of Thomas were Thomas' children.

Assumption 4 was made because it seemed reasonable that a household member between 10 and 15 in 1830 would be living the same household and be under 10 in 1820 (The child would actually be under 5 in 1820, but that exact category does not appear in the 1820 census. The cautionary note regarding dates of birth between June and August is also duly noted). If one assumed that every person enumerated in each of Thomas' census entries is a separate individual, then twenty-five distinct people lived with Thomas from 1810 through 1840. This seems a little unlikely.

Of course, there's no law that every "young" member of Thomas' household was his child, but until other records are analyzed, I'll work with this assumption.

While one or more of these assumptions may turn out to be partially incorrect (especially number 1), initial premises are necessary.

Converting the Census Data . . .
My first step was to go through each census year (1810-40) and list the individuals separately instead of in the aggregate as in the original census records. I then added my own comments after the word "COMMENT." This technique helped me distinguish what came from the census from what came from my own brain.

The 1810 entry for Thomas' household is analyzed below. Those who wish to see the original census image can view it at

Male born between 1800 and 1810, COMMENT:
Male born between 1794 and 1800, COMMENT:
Male born between 1784 and 1765, COMMENT:

Female born between 1800 and 1810, COMMENT:
Female born between 1800 and 1810, COMMENT:
Female born between 1800 and 1810, COMMENT:
Female born between 1794 and 1800, COMMENT:
Female born between 1765 and 1784, COMMENT:

Next week, we'll continue with Thomas through 1840 and begin an analysis of the individuals living in Thomas' household. Astute readers may note that we're trying to be careful and refer to Thomas' household from the census. There's no "law" that all the people living in a household have to be related . . . one more thing to throw into our analysis!

Census Wanted: Dead or Alive-from the Ancestry Daily News

Historical United States Census Questionnaires

University of Minnesota-Quick Guide to Answering Census Questions


Michael John Neill, is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is the Web columnist for the FGS FORUM and is on the editorial board of the Illinois State Genealogical Society Quarterly. He conducts seminars and lectures on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry and Genealogical Computing. You can e-mail him at: or visit his website at:, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

Copyright 2002, by the author on his site with permission.

Thomas Chaney Census Series