How To

How To Use The Pre-1850 Census to Find Your Female Ancestors


As genealogy researchers, the US census records are often some of the first records we search when looking at a family line. Typically, we pay more attention to the male ancestors listed in the pre-1850 census records. We (you can read that as “I”) usually 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.

But then….

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.

Census records were created to document individuals for tax and government representation. We 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.

How can we use these pre-1850  census records to research our female ancestors?


1830 Census - Halifax County, VA
1830 Census – Halifax County, VA

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 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 opens up several avenues of research to pursue:

  • Assuming Sarah was a widow, search marriage records for a Sarah [leave last name blank] and a male Blanks.  The search should include Halifax County, VA and surrounding counties.
  • Search probate records for a male Blanks.  Research all possible candidates for the naming of a wife Sarah.
  • Unfortunately, the 1830 Halifax County, VA census record is alphabetized so no sense of neighborhoods can be determined.  A Thomas Blanks is also listed in the record.  Research Thomas and determine if their is a possible connection.
  • 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!


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.

1790 Census – Wake County, NC

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.

1800 Census – Wake County, NC

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.

1830 Census – Wake County, NC

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 is 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 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 findings.

If you are interested in learning more about researching your female ancestors,  check out the Finding Your Female Ancestors e-course launching soon.


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How can we use these pre-1850 census records to research our female ancestors?

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