How To Use Pre-1850 Census Records to Find Your Female Ancestors
Genealogy researchers can struggle to find female ancestors in pre-1850 census records. We are familiar with the US census records, and they are often some of the first records we search when looking at a family line. In those early census records, we pay more attention to the male ancestors listed. We (you can read that as “I”) can fail to see our female ancestors in these records.
I used to dread the point in my census research when my ancestors preceded the 1850 U.S. census. (The truth is, I still do sometimes!)
I especially dreaded those pre-1850 census records when I researched anyone other than the head of household.
I understood my dread of the records stemmed from my lack of understanding these census records.
I had missed a basic genealogy research principle:
Understand what the record was actually saying.
Read that again….. I’ll wait!
Census records were created to document individuals for tax and government representation. Genealogy researchers need to understand how the data was collected to fully understand what the record is telling us. We need to be able to look beyond the surface information of the census record.
We must spend time learning how to analyze those early census records before jumping into our research.
How Can We Use These Pre-1850 Census Records To Find Female Ancestors?
PLACE FEMALE ANCESTORS IN PLACE AND TIME
Often female ancestors will simply be enumerated as a number in an age category. In this example we are looking at the 1830 US census for Wake County, NC.
Yes, somewhere in those numbers is Elizabeth Suggs Harward, wife if George Harward [Harwood].
The Harward 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.
The census record alone does not give us much on Elizabeth, but we can put her in Wake County, NC in 1830 AND estimate her birth date between 1791-1800.
A FEMALE AS THE HEAD OF HOUSEHOLD
Females can be found as head of household in pre-1850 census records.
This is the 1830 US Census record for Halifax County, VA. Sarah Blanks is listed as the head of the household. What exactly does that mean? With no other information about Sarah, we know she is most likely a widow. Females listed as head of households were usually widows. Her household included 2 male children under 5, 1 male child 5-9, 1 male 30-39, 2 female children under 5, 1 female child 5-9 and 1 female 30-39. This would have been Sarah herself. [The second page of the record listed Sarah with 1 male slave.]
Sarah’s birth date can be estimated to be from 1790-1800.
Sarah’s census enumeration opened up several avenues of research to pursue:
- Assuming Sarah was a widow, a search for a marriage record for a Sarah [leave last name blank] and a male Blanks was performed. The search included Halifax County, VA and surrounding counties. The search turned up an 1818 marriage certificate for Sarah Talley and Thomas Blanks.
- A search of probate records for a male Blanks was performed. Probate records revealed Thomas Blanks died in 1820 leaving Sarah Talley Blanks a widow.
- Unfortunately, the 1830 Halifax County, VA census record is alphabetized so no sense of neighborhoods can be determined. Where census records are not alphabetized make note of who lived in the community. This could prove helpful in future research.
Who was the 30-39 year old white male in Sarah’s household?! This is not Sarah’s husband. Remember, Sarah is the head of the household. If she were married, her husband would be the head of the household. Subsequent research revealed this male to be Langley Talbot, but their unconventional story is for another post….or series of posts! [Teaser: Sarah and Langley never married.]
DISCOVERING A SUBSEQUENT MARRIAGE
James Harward (Harwood) of Wake County was born in 1760 in King and Queen County, VA and moved to Orange County, NC in 1767. In 1771 the area where the the Harward family lived became part of the newly formed Wake County.
James had two wives: Rosannah Barbee and Rachel Belvin. We can track them through the early census records and determine time period estimates for Rosannah’s death and Rachel’s marriage to James.
In the 1790 US census above for Wake County, NC, James is enumerated as James Harrod [a common spelling of Harward] with 2 white females in his household and 2 white males under 16. This has the appearance of a family unit. Presumably one of the females is James Harward’s wife, but with just this record we cannot be sure. For now we keep this record in the back of our mind.
In the 1800 US census above for Wake County, NC the Harward family continued to grow. James Harward has one white female age 26-44 years in his household. Later records indicate this is his wife Rosannah Barbee. We can estimate her birth date to be between 1756-1774. That’s a wide range but looking at the children’s ages the eldest male child is 16-25 years old we can estimate her to be in the mid to late age range of this category.
Unfortunately, the 1810 and 1820 census records did not survive for Wake County, NC. The 1830 US census for Wake County is the next record to analyze.
The 1830 census above shows James Harwood [Harward] still in Wake County, NC. James is listed as 60-69 years old. The oldest female is 40-49 years old with an estimated birth date of 1781-1790. In the 1800 census record we found James’s wife was born 1756-1774 and likely closer to the mid-range. By the 1830 census we are looking at a different woman, a younger woman.
The enumeration of James Harward’s household from the 1790-1830 census records opens up several avenues of research:
- First, a marriage record prior to 1790 for James Harward should be sought.
- If a marriage record is found, pursue potential father candidates through probate records.
- For the second woman (probably a second wife) in 1830, search for a second marriage record prior to 1830. Since James Harward has stayed in Wake County, NC throughout each of these census years, pursue this second marriage record in Wake County first.
- With the evidence of a second wife, searching for evidence of the first wife’s death is warranted.
While you may not find definitive information in the pre-1850 census for your female ancestor, she is there. Her presence among those tick marks and numbers will provide you clues and new avenues of research. These are crucial to learning more about your elusive females. Beside other records, the early census records can support your other genealogical findings.
Other posts of interest:
- Finding Children Between the Census Years
- How To Make Genealogy Sense of Census Records
- What Is That Family Cemetery REALLY Telling You?
Great post! But I’m very curious about Langley Talbot and Sarah’s story now!
So glad you enjoyed the post, Emma! I’m planning to turn Langley and Sarah’s story into a book. Don’t worry, I’ll post parts to the blog, too.
I would gladly purchase that book! Historical books are my weakness. Actually, books in general are my weakness. that’s why I work in a library!
My family has been trying to find out more about our family on my mom’s side. Overwhelming but interesting! How do you start to research American Indians from Wyoming who arrived at Eastern Shore of Maryland on a barge, which is where my great grandmother was born? I’m am determined to find out!
What an interesting research project! You might want to pop that question into the Facebook group. I’ve not had much Native American research experience personally, but I wouldn’t be surprised if someone in the group does.