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Census Tips: 1850 Census

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The 1850 census was the seventh federal census. Census day was June 1, 1850. Census day is when gathering information for the census began. All information was for the previous year ending on that day. Several changes happened with procedures and the type of information recorded. In 1850, the Census Office was created and began operation. The enumeration continued to be taken door to door, but the duties of the newly formed office was to collect the returns for each state and prepare reports. Until 1902 when the Census Office became its own federal agency, the office would disband after each enumeration was complete and form again in order to prepare for the next census in ten years.

NC county boundaries during the 1850 census

In addition to the original census schedule, two other copies were made. One copy was  given to the Secretary of State for each state or territory. Another copy was given to each county court for that county’s enumeration. It is important to keep that in mind while looking at the 1850 census and beyond. You may be looking at an  image of the original, but you might be looking at a copy, or even a copy of the copy. This presents a lot of room for human error.

1850 Census: Year of Change

There was also a big change in the information gathered for the 1850 census. No longer was only the head of the household listed, but now the entire household. There are also many new questions asked in addition to racial designation and gender:

  • Exact age (on the census day)
  • Occupation
  • Value of real estate
  • Place of birth
  • If married within the year (as of the census day)
  • If attended school within the year
  • People over age 20 who are illiterate
  • Whether deaf, mute, blind, insane, pauper, or convict

Potential Problems

As with all census records, there are a few issues that may cause trouble in finding individuals. One of the biggest problems is with the spelling of names. Things that can affect spelling include accents and literacy of the enumerator. Some things may seem straight forward like Smith, but they could still be enumerated as Smithe, Smyth, or Smythe. Be sure to check spelling variations.

Sometimes the writing can be faded, the page torn, or bad handwriting, all of which can make things hard to read. A tip for discerning the letters in a name that are hard to read is to compare to other names within a few pages. For example, If you see a name that is new to you and hard to read that looks like “Joker”, take a look at how the enumerator forms all the letters in the name. You might realize that “Joker” is actually another name. In this case, the first letter in the names James and Joseph looked the same;  I compared the -o and -er in Robert and it was very clear that it was -o, but not -er; I couldn’t find a -k to compare, but noticed it looked a lot like an -h. At this point, I had Joh-. I saw an Anna and realized the last letter was an -n giving the name John.

The Government and Heritage Library has microfilm for all states that were enumerated, specifically: Alabama, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota Territory, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico Territory, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon Territory, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah  Territory, Vermont, Virginia, and Wisconsin. We also have published indexes for many of these states. Come and check it out!

Further Reading

Dollarhide, William. The Census Book: A Genealogist’s Guide to Federal Census Facts, Schedules, and Indexes. North Salt Lake, UT: Heritage Quest, 2000.

Dollarhide, William. Census Substitutes and State Census Records: An Annotated Bibliography of Published Name Lists for All 50 U.S. States and State Censuses for 37 States. Bountiful, UT: Family Roots Publishing Company, 2008.

“United States Census.”

Hinckley, Kathleen W. Your Guide to the Federal Census for Genealogists, Researchers, and Family Historians. Cincinnati, OH: Betterway Books, 2002.

Leary, Helen F.M. North Carolina Research: Genealogy and Local History. Raleigh, NC: North Carolina Genealogical Society, 1996.

Szucs, Loretto Dennis and Matthew Wright. Finding Answers in U.S. Census Records. Orem, UT: Ancestry, 2002.

Thorndale, William and William Dollarhide. Map Guide to the U.S. Federal Census, 1790-1920. Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1987.

United States Census Bureau. “Through the Decades: Overview.”


Free printable charts:

National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)

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