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Clues in Census Records, 1790-1840

Experienced genealogical researchers use clues found in one record to find other records about the same individual. Although the first six federal decennial censuses taken from 1790 through 1840 contain less data than those taken later, they still contain useful clues that should not be overlooked.

Date of Birth

The 1790-1840 censuses generally named only the head of household but reported the age of each household member in age categories. For example, the 1810 census reported the number of free white males and females in these age categories:

"Under ten years of age"
"Of ten years, and under sixteen"
"Of sixteen, and under twenty-six"
"Of twenty-six, and under forty-five"
"Of forty-five and upwards"

While the age range provided by age categories does not indicate an exact date of birth, it at least gives a "ballpark" figure useful (1) for tracking the head of household from one census to the next, especially if other people have the same name, and (2) for tentatively estimating the composition of the family, which the researcher must confirm from other records.

For example, in 1810, the household of Alexander Tackles of Warsaw, Genesee Co., NY, consisted of two males age 16-26 (sons Alexander Jr. and John B.), one male over age 45 (Alexander), one female under age 10 (daughter Sophronia), one female age 16-26 (daughter Polly), and one female over age 45 (wife Philena Howard). The census provided the age ranges of family members; names and exact dates of birth of Alexander's family members were obtained from other records.

The 1840 census reported the name and exact age of Revolutionary War pensioners; examples are given in the next section.

Military Service

The 1840 census asked for the names and ages of "Pensioners for Revolutionary or Military Services, Included in the Foregoing [Household]." Pensioners included both veterans and widows. For example, veteran Alexander Tackels, aged 85, was enumerated in the household of Jonathan Arnold in Middlebury, Genesee (now Wyoming) Co., NY, and the widow Chloe McCullar, aged 81 1/2, was enumerated in the household of W.W. Blake in St. Albans Township, Licking Co., OH.

This clue should lead the researcher to Revolutionary War military service and pension records. The pension files, which are especially useful, have been reproduced in NARA microfilm publication M804, Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land Warrant Application Files (2,670 rolls). Military service records are also available on microfilm; for more information see listings for Record Group 93, War Department Collection of Revolutionary War Records, in Microfilm Resources for Research: A Comprehensive Catalog (Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration, 1996), which is available online or for purchase.

Since elderly persons usually resided with kinfolk, the pensioners' presence in these households should be a clue that the pensioner may be related to someone in the household. For example, William W. Blake's wife's maiden name was Nancy McCullar; she was one of Chloe McCullar's children.

Immigration and Naturalization

The 1820 census reported the number of "Foreigners not naturalized" in each household; the 1830 census reported the number of "ALIENS--Foreigners not naturalized" in each household. For example, the 1820 census for Geauga County, Ohio, reported that these households included aliens:

Name Number of Aliens Township
Thomas Ainslee
Francis Bark
Francis Billette
John Graham 2d
Abel Levins

Although these censuses do not specify which person or persons in the household were aliens, this clue should alert the researcher (1) to search for known household members in immigration records, (2) to be alert to clues in other records that point to the suspected immigrant's possible foreign origins, and (3) to search for possible later naturalization records for the suspected immigrant. Unfortunately, however, there are relatively few ship passenger lists (immigration records) before January 1, 1820, when the Federal Government began requiring such lists to be presented to collectors of customs.

Occupation and Economic Data

1810 Census

In 1810, the U.S. marshals and their assistants who took the census were instructed to obtain information about manufacturing. However, since they were not told what questions to ask, the information collected varied widely. For example, Eli Waste of Wilmington, Windham Co., VT, owned one loom that produced the following yards of cloth: 60 woolen, 50 linen, 10 cotton, and 50 mixed fabrics, while James Weston [sic, Westurn] of Orwell, Rutland (now Addison) Co., VT, owned seven sheep, one spinning wheel, and one little spinning wheel that produced 25 yards of woolen cloth and 15 yards of linen cloth.

Clues about livestock may lead to personal property tax records, kept by the county treasurer, county auditor, or equivalent official.

1820 Census

The 1820 census reported the number of persons in each household who engaged in agriculture, commerce, and manufacturing.

If household members engaged in agriculture (i.e., were farmers), the researcher should check for deeds and mortgages in the county recorder's office or equivalent agency, and for real and personal property tax records kept by the county auditor, county treasurer, or equivalent official. Not all farmers owned land or livestock, of course, but it is always worthwhile to check all extant records for the place where a person is known to have lived.

If household members engaged in manufacturing, the researcher should examine NARA microfilm publication M279, Records of the 1820 Census of Manufactures (27 rolls). According to the instructions given the U.S. marshals and their assistants, persons engaged in manufacturing included both (1) both employees in "manufacturing establishments" and (2) "artificers, handicrafts men, and mechanics whose labor is preeminently of the hand, and not upon the field." The manufacturing census schedules in M279 include information about:

  • The type of business;
  • Kinds and quantities of raw materials used;
  • Number of persons employed;
  • Number and type of machinery;
  • Expenditures for capital (equipment) and wages;
  • Type and quality of goods produced annually; and
  • General remarks.

Three cautions are in order, however:

First, a person listed as a manufacturer in the population census may not be included in the 1820 manufacturing schedules in M279. For example, M279 contains information about 13 manufacturing establishments in Batavia (now Middlefield), Burton, Chardon, and Parkman Twps., Geauga Co., OH, but the population census lists 60 households in the same townships in which one or more persons were engaged in manufacturing!

Second, a household may include only persons "engaged in agriculture" according to the population census, yet have a manufacturing schedule in M279. For example, M279 includes a manufacturing schedule for a pot and pearl ashery owned by "Ives & Doty" of Parkman Twp., Geauga Co., OH, yet the population census reported Jesse Ives and Asa Doty's households only included persons "engaged in agriculture."

Third, persons who are not listed as head of household in the population census may have a manufacturing schedule in M279. For example, Daniel Earle, Oliver Gavitt, and R.W. Scott are all listedin M279 as manufacturers in Parkman Township, Geauga Co., OH, but are not named as heads of household in the population census anywhere in the county.

1840 Census

The 1840 census reported the number of persons in each household who engaged in mining; agriculture; commerce; manufactures and trades; navigation of the ocean; navigation of canals, lakes, and rivers; and learned professions and engineers. Again, researchers should check land and tax records kept by county officials, especially when the household was engaged in agricultural pursuits.


Experienced genealogical researchers use clues found in one record to locate other records about the same individual. However, it is always best to thoroughly exhaust all extant records for the place where the person is known to have lived, as shown by the above analysis of the surprises found in the 1820 manufacturing schedules for Geauga Co., OH.

This essay is adapted from Claire Prechtel-Kluskens, "Clues in Census Records, 1790-1840," The Record, Vol. 4, No. 5 (May 1998).