By: James Gill, KHS Volunteer
Some genealogists avoid using the censuses prior to 1850 because these enumerations do not name all the members of the household. Despite this handicap, the censuses from 1790 to 1840 can be very useful for tracking a family’s movements, for getting a general picture of the number and ages of males and females in a family and for clues of where to look for records.
Here is the problem:
I had four census records (1810-1840) for a James Downing, each in a different location. Although I had some information on this family, I didn’t know if these four records were for the same family or even related people.
I created a spreadsheet. This time I used Google Docs but I also could have used LibreOffice. Both programs are free. I think Google Docs is easier to use. I started with a column for the 1810 census in Bracken County, Kentucky. I listed the oldest male at the top. The census said he was aged 26 to 44 which meant he was born between 1766 and 1784. I then skipped some lines and listed the oldest female who was aged 16-25 (born 1785-1794). Under her, I listed the other females, all less than nine years old.
I did the same for the 1820 census of Mason County, Kentucky — three males and five females, the 1830 census of Western Division, Mason County, Kentucky (five males and three females) and the 1840 census of Byrd Township, Brown County, Ohio (three males and two females). I also added the 1850 and 1860 censuses to the chart.
As you can see, the three oldest females were not in the 1830 census. They had married. Since the family was living in Mason County, Kentucky, from 1820 to 1840, that would be the place to start to look for their marriage records. Similarly, two of the males and the next oldest female were not in the 1840 census. They also had married but their records might be in Kentucky or Ohio.
By the way, I have made so many mistakes computing birth years in my head that I finally created a chart listing all the age groups and related birth years for the 1810-1840 censuses. Download a PDF of this and keep it handy.
Things to be on the look-out for
Obviously, when you see an individual disappear from the census, you have to look further. If the individual was too young to marry or was only listed in one census, a check of death records or cemetery records would be in order.
Other clues to watch for include:
– A significant change in the age of the oldest female. That might signal a second wife.
– A gap in the rhythm of births. In this family, there is a gap of five years — 1808 to 1813.
That might be a clue to the death of a child or a remarriage of the oldest male between those years. In this case either Bracken or Mason counties would be the place to look.
This family was much more consistent through the censuses than many that I have charted. The only problem was with Lucretia, the mother, and Lucretia, the daughter. The older Lucretia just could not quite figure out how old she was.
The purpose of this project was to determine if the four census records for a James Downing were for the same family. Considering how consistent these enumerations were in describing the family, I’m confident they are.
About the Author:
Jim Gill is a native of Illinois, is a retired newspaper editor and computer system manager and has been doing genealogy for 50 years. He was a founding member of the Illiana Genealogical and Historical Society and the Illinois State Genealogical Society. He has served both organizations as quarterly editor.
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