Sep 15, 2023

Using the pre-1850 Censuses

September 15, 2023

The federal censuses are a basic resource for genealogical research in the U.S. They have been taken every ten years since 1790. However, many genealogists focus their attention on the censuses taken in 1850 and later. That’s because since 1850, all household members have been identified by name.


The censuses taken in 1790, 1800, 1810, 1820, 1830 and 1840 listed only the head of the household by name. The other household members were delineated by a tick mark under categories such as age and gender.


Because the earlier censuses didn’t name everyone, many genealogists tend to skip them. It’s true that the earlier censuses contain fewer useful genealogical details, but they’re still worth studying. Since most heads of households were men, most searches will focus on men. There are often men with the same name. That’s why it is important to have some basic information to improve your chances of finding and identifying your ancestor.


Having at least a general location for your ancestor is necessary for using these early censuses. This is especially important if your ancestor had a common name. You will also need an idea of an ancestor’s family structure to help you confirm you have found the correct person.


Online family trees such as FamilySearch Family Tree or Ancestry’s family trees are good places to look for a family’s structure. These trees are especially prevalent for earlier people from earlier American periods when the early censuses were made. The trees may contain errors, but they can be a good starting place to figure out what an ancestor’s family structure was like.


Once you have found a likely ancestor on one of the early censuses, the goal is to figure out who the various tick marks on the census represent. Using the location and structure of a family can help you do this.


This week I have been examining the censuses from 1800 through 1830 for my third great grandfather Stephen Hadlock. Stephen Hadlock is not a common name, so I found him years ago in these early censuses. In addition, Stephen has been researched extensively. However, there are still some holes in his timeline, and I hope to fill a few of them by looking at these censuses.


According to town records, Stephen was born in Weare, New Hampshire in 1790. Sometime before the birth of his younger brother three years later, the family moved north to Bath, New Hampshire. Looking at the tick marks on the 1800 census for his father, Jonathan Hadlock, in Bath confirms that two young boys ten and under were in the family.


By 1810, Jonathan Hadlock and his family were still living in Bath. Two young men between sixteen and twenty-five years of age were part of the family. Undoubtedly, they were Stephen and his brother.


According to other records, Stephen married before 1820. He and his bride as well as much of his extended family moved to Jay, Vermont around that time. The 1820 census shows Stephen and what appears to be his wife with two young children in Jay. In addition, there is an older couple in the household who may be Stephen’s parents. They don’t appear in their own household in 1820 nor have I found death records for them. This census has spurred me to further research into what happened to Stephen’s parents after 1810.

That’s as far as my research has gone to date. I need to do further research into the 1820 census and look at the 1830 census. Even though I have more to do, I feel that looking at these early censuses has already deepened my understanding of the Hadlock Family. After looking at the censuses, I now know that Stephen lived near to his siblings for at least the first part of his marriage and that his parents may have lived with him in their old age.


I hope to discover more.


Carol Stetser