Discovering your pre-1850 ancestral history

In many cases, searching for ancestors or documents dated after 1850 will yield a considerable amount of information and resources.  The proliferation of data is largely a result of the detailed federal censuses that were initiated in 1850.  In contrast, as many individuals who have spent time researching their family histories are aware, the earliest U.S. census records taken between 1790 and 1840 provide a mere skeletal version of a family picture.  These early censuses furnish the names of the head of household and the head count of other family members, but no other information is provided regarding the identities of, or relationships among, the other individuals in the family.  Therefore, when we stumble upon a question or historical gap that necessitates a search through pre-1850 records, the task presents unique challenges.  Yet there are several strategies to working with these census schedules and other documentation to make inroads into your research.

Tracing a single family prior to 1850.    The difficulty in working with pre-1850 records involves relying upon sparse data to adequately distinguish between family units and identify the individuals or families for whom you are searching.  How do you take the family you have correctly pinpointed in the 1850 census and accurately trace it back in the preceding censuses of 1840, 1830, 1820 and so on?  While the census data during these periods omits the names of family members, it does offer some relevant information including the number of individuals in the family, their genders and age ranges, the place of birth, race, and whether the person is a naturalized foreign born citizen (for the 1830 and 1840 censuses).  You can gather the detailed information about your ancestor’s family obtained from the 1850 census to create a profile.  Then attempt to match this depiction to a family in prior censuses by using the name of the head of household and accounting for a loss of ten years.  In this way, you can trace an individual family back in time while relying upon the parameters of gender and age ranges.  It is also helpful to limit the geographic region to search for a particular family through older records.

Using state census records.  State census records may be instrumental in filling in the gaps created by missing federal census records.  In particular, during the years 1790, 1800, 1810 and 1890, the state census functioned as a replacement for the federal census.  State censuses often contained information which differed from the data in the federal census.  Information that was unique to the state census included the individual’s participation in the military, occupation, education, voting status and state and country of origin.   In addition, because state censuses were taken in off years between the federal censuses, you can utilize these schedules to identify children who born and died, or to confirm the deaths of other family members.

Locating tax records.  One of the most consistent sources of information for researching past decades is tax records.  Prior to 1850, tax records can be analyzed to ascertain an ancestor’s years of birth, marriage and death.  And most importantly, these records were produced on an annual basis.  In conjunction with state census records and some clever sleuthing when reviewing pre-1850 census records, tax documents can be valuable tools for tracing your older ancestors.


Louisa Kalish

Louisa Kalish is a lawyer and a freelance writer for online legal and general interest publications. She became interested in genealogy during a brief stint in pro bono family law. While not engaged in her writing and legal pursuits, she is an active volunteer in several charitable organizations and heads the parenting organization at her children's school. She resides in New Jersey with her husband and three children.

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1 Response

  1. ubaud sabine says:

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