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Genealogy: The Evolution of the Census

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Everyone Has a Name in 1850

The 1850 census was the first to require the name and age of everyone in the household. Its value to genealogists increased dramatically as a result. A dwelling number and family number was assigned to each listing in the order of visitation. Questions included name, age, sex, “color,” occupation, value of real estate, birthplace, whether married within the year, whether attended school within the year, and whether they could read or write (if over the age of 20). Additionally, whether any were deaf-mute, blind, insane, “idiotic,” or a convict.

The census is useful for clues in naming patterns, in identifying the household as of a certain date, occupation, and migration. The value of real estate gives some idea of the worth of the family and is an additional clue that there could be land records available in the county.

Those Others Living with the Family

Those living with the family should be carefully noted because they might be relatives—a mother-in-law or a married sister. And very important, the families enumerated a few listings before and after the family should be noted because they, too, may be related. If not, they may still assist the search because families usually did not move in isolation. When migrating from one area to another, they were often accompanied by family or friends. That information can lead you to a prior residence.

Lineage Lessons

The occupations listed in the census can help. If there were several by the surname in the county who were cabinet makers, you might suspect a relationship. If they were farmers, look for land transactions. If your nineteenth century ancestor was a doctor, perhaps the medical school he attended has data. The census can even point you to military records when it shows “sailor” or “Col., U.S. Army” as the “occupation.”

Let's say you are tracing a family listed in the 1850 census of Montgomery County, Tennessee, and note the older members of the family were all born in North Carolina. You know that they moved between 1844 and 1846, because a child was born in Tennessee in 1846. The surname is common. Where in North Carolina to look? Check the neighbors. You notice that some of them were also born in North Carolina and, judging from the birthplaces of the children, seem to have moved around the same time. Look in the 1840 census index of North Carolina for the surname, and the surname of the neighbors. This may help narrow the search when you find similar names grouped together in one of the North Carolina counties.

Slaveholders and Slaves

There were separate slave schedules taken with the 1850 census. The name of the slave owner was given, the number of slaves owned, and the number of former slaves now freed. The slaves, however, were not listed by name. These schedules have been microfilmed.

Leads and More Leads

The clues that result from the use of a census listing are many. Your family was listed in 1850 Pennsylvania and part of the information shown was as follows:

Name Age Sex Birthplace Occupation Real Estate

SMITH, Jonathan 39 m Virginia Farmer $100
Mary 37 f Virginia keeping house
Barnabus 11 m Virginia
Catharine 9 f Maryland
Joseph 7 m Pennsylvania
Martha 3 f Pennsylvania
Jessie 1 f Pennsylvania
JORDAN, Barnabus 65 m Virginia retired

How does this help? You now know that Jonathan Smith was born ca. (about) 1811 in Virginia, and that his wife was born ca. 1813 in Virginia. Their son Barnabus was born ca. 1839 in Virginia. Catharine's birthplace indicates that they moved to Maryland between about 1839 and 1841. However, soon thereafter, they moved to Pennsylvania, in time for the birth of Joseph ca. 1843, followed by Martha and Jessie. You now have an idea of the migratory pattern of this family. In addition, because Jonathan Smith was a farmer and had real estate valued at $100.00, you can check for a deed on the farm. Even the township is helpful. Using that, county histories can be consulted for early inhabitants. Newspapers can be examined for their community columns.

Lineage Lessons

In using the census to establish an approximate birth, if the daughter is eight in 1850, show that she was born “ca. 1842.” Do not show it without the ca. (meaning circa, or about) because the year may not be correct. In 1850, the census year was measured from June 1, 1849, through May 31, 1850. The actual month of birth affects the calculation of the age. Aside from that, there are many errors in ages.

What about Barnabus Jordan, aged 65, living with the family? You note that he was born in Virginia (as was Mary Smith, Jonathan's probable wife), and that Jonathan and Mary Smith named a son Barnabus. Possibly Barnabus Jordan is Mary's father. Though this census does not give the required proof, it is another “lead” to follow.

Do you stop here? No. Check the listings before and after Jonathan Smith. Two listings before is Martin Smith, age 69, born in Virginia, and Mary Smith, age 67, born in Virginia. Could they be Jonathan's parents? Three listings after Jonathan is Thomas Gordon, 40, and Matilda Gordon, 35, both born in Virginia. Among their children is a son, Barnabus Gordon. Perhaps Matilda is a sister of Mary. The name similarity of the child Barnabus, together with the ages of Mary, 37, and Matilda, 35, both born in Virginia, would suggest that they might be sisters. Although it will need further investigation, you have another clue.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Genealogy © 2005 by Christine Rose and Kay Germain Ingalls. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.


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