Researching your ancestors in the pre-1850 census records presents unique challenges. You can make sense of those tick marks and find your ancestors!
Genealogy Research,  How To Trace Your Family Tree

How to Make Sense of Those Tick Marks on Pre-1850 Census Records

Use pre-1850 census records to find your ancestors! Learn how to read these records and identify your ancestors in a step-by-step guide.

You have been merrily tracking your ancestors back through the census records decade by decade.

1870……1860…..1850……1840…Wait!  What are those tick marks? Numbers?

Where did your ancestor go? How can you determine exactly who is in the household?  How do you even know if you have the correct family?

Yes, these pre-1850 census records and those tick marks/numbers in age group columns CAN provide you with valuable information on your ancestors.

How to Make Sense of Those Tick Marks on Pre-1850 Census Records

From 1790-1840 only the head of household was named and members of the household were recorded as tick marks in age range categories.  As with the post-1850 census record the type and amount of information  in a given census record varies.

For example, these are the headings for the 1790 census record.

  • Head of household
  • Free white males 16 years and upward
  • Free white males under 16 years
  • Free white females
  • All other free persons
  • Slaves
Tan box overlayed on 1830 census page. White text reads How to Make sense of those tick marks on the Pre-1850 Census Records
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Notice in this 1790 census from Wake County, North Carolina, the headings are not listed on each page. Keep a blank  1790 template close at hand when you are examining  these records. (Find blank census forms here.) That will make your research of the 1790 census so much easier and more efficient.  You will not have to keep going back and forth to see which column is which.

Sample 1790 census records with listings of head of household and age related columns
1790 Wake County, NC Census Record Page

1830 Census Categories

Fast forward 40 years. The 1830 census record included many more age categories as well as information on “deaf, dumb and blind” individuals”. Aliens were also noted.

Headings for the 1830 Census record

Let’s take a closer look at the 1830 census record for George Harward [Howard]  of Wake County, North Carolina.

Sample page of 1830 census record
1830 Wake County, NC Census Record Page
1830 Census George Harwood arrow
Close Up of Head of Household for George Harwood

The first thing you will notice is the spelling of his surname as Harwood. This is an acceptable variation for Harward.  The point here is not to let an alternate spelling throw you. If you’ve made it this far in your research, you will no doubt recognize spelling could be quite variable from record to record.

The next thing you will notice is the list of head of household names are alphabetized.   While this helps you the researcher search for you ancestors, you will miss out on being able to determine who your ancestor’s neighbors were.

A sense of the immediate neighborhood is lost, BUT you can still gain an understanding of who was in the area (census district). Note who these individuals were. You may recognize names of individuals that appear as witnesses, neighbors, etc. in your ancestors’ other records.

Most census records regardless of the year, are not alphabetized.  As we saw in the previous post on post-1850 census records, when head of households are not alphabetized, take note of who is listed around your ancestor. These individuals are your ancestor’s neighbors and the people they interacted with. They could very likely be other family members.

Reading across from George’s name we see a row of boxes with tick marks/numbers.  Those are George’s family members. Yes, your ancestors (and mine) are just a tick mark or a number in these census records.

Who is Whom in This Pre-1850 Census Record?!

So, how are we supposed to figure out who is who in a record like this?!

Just one line at a time. One column at a time.

Oh, and a little math. Let me show you how.

1830 Census George Harwood tick marks

This household included 1 male under 5, 1 male 5-9 years, 1 male 10- 14, 1 male 30-39, 2 females under 5, 1 female 10-14. 1 female 30-39.

We can assume the oldest male aged 30-39 is George Harward/Harwood and the oldest female is his wife Elizabeth. Now let’s do the math. (Sorry, math is involved here!) We can estimate George’s birth date (and Elizabeth’s, too) as 1791-1800.  1830 – 30 = 1800 and 1830-39 = 1791. Therefore, they were each born between 1791-1800.

George had 6 children at the time of the census.

  • Male child #1             Under 5 years     Born 1825-1830
  • Male child #2             5-9 years               Born 1821-1825
  • Male child #3             10-14 years           Born 1816-1820
  • Female child #1         Under 5 years    Born 1825-1830
  • Female child #2         Under 5 years    Born 1825-1830
  • Female child #3          10-14 years         Born 1816-1820

Using other records such as a family Bible, post 1850 census records, wills, and estates will help put names to your ancestors’ tick marks.  The Harward family Bible exists and from that names can assigned to each of the children’s  tick marks.

  • Male child #1             Under 5 years       Born 1825-1830       Caswell Harward
  • Male child #2             5-9 years                 Born 1821-1825        James Calvin Harward
  • Male child #3             10-14 years            Born 1816-1820        Allen Mays Harward
  • Female child #1         Under 5 years     Born 1825-1830       Susannah Harward
  • Female child #2         Under 5 years    Born 1825-1830       Utiley Harward
  • Female child #3         10-14 years          Born 1816-1820        Sarah Ann Harward

Turn the Page: 1830 Page 2 Headings

Looking on the second page of the 1830 census entry for George Harward, the researcher learns he owned no slaves and had no free persons of color in his household. There were also no individuals with handicaps noted. You did check the second page of your ancestor’s record, right?

Don’t forget to check the second page of your ancestor’s census record.  The 1830 and 1840 census records both have second pages and you do not want to miss out on the additional information found there. Here you will often find more social type of information.

Frequently Asked Questions

What information can I find in pre-1850 census records?

From 1790-1840, only the head of household was listed by name, with other household members represented by tick marks within age range categories. Additional data may vary depending on the year and location. For example, in the 1840 census, Revolutionary War veterans are noted if in the household.

How do I estimate birthdates from these records?

You will not be able to pinpoint an exact date of birth for your ancestors in the pre-1850 census. By analyzing the age categories, you can make educated estimates of birth years for the head of household and other family members.

What other resources can I use in conjunction with pre-1850 census records?

Family Bibles, post-1850 census records, wills, and estates can all provide crucial supplementary information to help identify individuals represented by tick marks.

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  • Tk

    These are great! Very informative! Wish I had discovered before now-so I’m gonna go back over census records to find even more info about my relatives
    Can’t wait!

  • Janice M. Cronan

    Lisa, I agree this is great information, and I love the look of your new website.
    My question is how long does it take for you to write your posts? It seems to take me so long to post to my blog about my ancestors, and I just eventually stop. Thanks for any suggestions, Janice

    • LisaL

      So glad you like the new look! I can usually write a blog post in about 2 hours if it’s a straight forward topic. If I have to do a lot of extra research for a post, it can take me longer. One thing that helps is to use a template to structure your post. This helps streamline the process and keep you moving forward. I also try to set specific days that I write. Having a designated writing time helps a lot. Hope that helps!

  • Cheryl Bennett

    While the names in the 1830 census you used here may be in alpha order, I’ve just checked several of the ones I have, and they are not in alpha order, so this cannot be a blanket statement.

  • Lawrence Luther

    My male relatives name in 1840 census has a cross through the tic mark in the female age group that would correspond to his approximate age. Does that “X” mean his wife died?

  • Delores Martin

    I use spreadsheets for the census records. This is especially helpful for the pre-1850 census records. I put the age category at the top and the birth years. For example male age 5-10 birth year 1815-1820. I then go through the page and place tick marks counting the blank one to place them under the appropriate column. Later when you have a birth year you can figure out which one is showing up in the 1850 census. I put everyone with the same last name on that spreadsheet. I do this for all of the census records. It has really helped my research and if I find a new relative then I can go to that spreadsheet and see if they are on it.

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