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 1840 Census

(c) Linda Haas Davenport (Updated 2007)

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As you move back in time each census you search has less and less information to help you determine which family is actually yours. After the abundance of information found on the 1930-1850 censuses the 1840 census often comes as a shock. This is the first census most family historians encounter that has only the names of the head of the household and no names for other members in the household. The difficult task of finding one's family gets more difficult beginning with this census.

From this census back to the 1790 the primary intent of the census was to accurately count the population as of a given date. To that end only the head of a household is named and every individual at that house was to be counted as of the enumeration date. This means that whereas in 1850 you had a name (hopefully a first and last one) for everyone and could sort out family members from here on back you are dealing with one name and the rest of household is reduced to numbers based on age.

When discussing the 1930-1850 census records I told you to be sure to gather information on at least the 10 families before and after your own and if at all possible to gather information on all families with your surname that you find in the county and surrounding counties. I'm guessing most people turned a deaf ear to that suggestion. After all it's time consuming and many family historians probably felt it was a waste of time and effort. However, it is this 1840 census that makes that prior effort worthwhile. Hopefully, you set up a census search sheet (see the 1850 census article) and have your family groupings listed and their ages as of the 1840 census. This will help you determine which families might possibly to be yours.

The 1790-1840 census takers were to record everyone in the house as of the enumeration date. Since it was rare that anyone could remember who was actually in their home on a day that was possibly 18 months before, the farther removed from the enumeration date the visit was made, the more likely it was that the census taker just recorded the people in the house (along with the family) on the day he visited. That might include a neighbor, visiting family, boarders, hired hands or even strangers stopping for the night.

The 1840 census continued the practice of prior censuses with the US District Court having jurisdiction and the U.S. Marshal being in charge of the actual census taking. As with the 1830 census Congress required two copies of the census schedules. One to be retained in the U.S. District Court Clerk's office and one forwarded to Washington.

As each census was taken the scope of the information requested expanded. The government found that they could gather information on the population beyond the simple counting of persons of a given age. The 1810 census collected information on manufacturing, the 1820 census asked about the number of males who were military age, in 1830 it was how many children were of school age, how many people were deaf and dumb and/or blind and how many were Aliens. The 1840 census continued this expansion of gathering information and it is the 2nd pages of the schedules where we find these additional questions.

One question asks what occupation each person in the family was engaged in. There were separate schedules prepared from these occupation. These schedules may be available for some states and the State Archives should be questioned to see if any exist for the state you are researching. Some of these schedules ended up at state universities and I have been told that Duke University in N. C. has many of them, whether this is true or not I don't know.

In 1840 it had been 60 years since the Revolutionary War and the government was interested in how many Revolutionary Pensioners were still living and how old they were. The government was paying pensions to men who had served in the Revolutionary (and other) Wars and was interested in how much longer it would be paying these pensions. Each of these pensioners was listed by name and age. If you are lucky enough to find someone in your family listed in this column it is your clue to order pension files from the National Archives (see my article on Military Records for information).

The 1840 Census continued to query whether anyone in the household was Deaf and Dumb or blind (as was asked in the 1830 census). However, the 1840 census expanded this category (for both White & Black) to include any person insane or an idiot and whether the person was being cared for at home or in a public institution. The breakdown of this category also changed (see below). As with the other censuses if you find family listed in this category it is your clue to search for information on institutions that cared for people with these disabilities.

Let me digress for a moment here. I have heard people say they would not record any information that used the word idiot. Those people need to keep this in mind - The usage and meaning of words has changed over time and what is considered to be politically incorrect nowadays was not at the time a record was made. The job of any family historian is to accurately record information as it is found and to understand the context within the time frame a word was used and what its meaning was at that time. It is not the job of a family historian to change anything found in an original record to something that is considered politically correct today.

The final new section of the 1840 census had to do with education. The government was interested in how many children in the household were attending school and what level of education they were receiving. In 1830 the government had set aside free land for the building and support of schools. They were interested in seeing how many communities had actually built schools and how many children were receiving an education.

Each of the different questions gives the family historian clues of where to search for additional information in the records of the county and/or state.

Example of Page 1 of the 1840 Schedules 


Example of Page 2

Schedules were broken down by: Name of County, City, Ward, Township, Parish, Precinct, Hundred, or District. Name of Head of Family. Free white males and then Free White Females, both broken down by the same age divisions: Under 5, 5-9, 10-14, 15-19, 20-29, 30-39, 40-49, 50-59, 60-69, 70-79, 80-89, 90-99 and over 100. Free Colored Persons males and then females: Under 10, 10-23, 24-35, 36-54, 55-99, 100 and over.

Page 2 is broken down by: Slaves, males and then females: Under 10, 10-23, 24-35, 36-54, 55-99, 100 and over. The next column is for totals. The biggest changes begin with the next section. Number of persons in each family employed in: Mining; Agriculture; Commerce; Manufacture and trade; Navigation of the ocean; Navigation of canals, lakes, rivers; Learned professional engineers.

The next section requested the name and age of Pensioners for Revolutionary or military services, included in the foregoing.

The next section is much like the 1830 census in that it requests information on people who deaf and dumb and blind. The section is headed: Deaf and Dumb, Blind, and Insane White Persons including in the foregoing. This category is further broken down two subsections. The first - Deaf and Dumb; asks for the number of people Under 14; 14 & under 25; 25 & upwards. The next section is Blind and Insane. Subcategories are: Blind; Insane and idiots at public charge; Insane and idiots at private charge. For the Colored person schedule it was broken down by: Deaf & Dumb; Blind; and the two sections on Insane and Idiots are the same as the White persons.

The last section is on education and wants to know how many of the people in the household attended school and at what level. After each school type it asks how many scholars in the family attended the type of school. The categories are: University or college; number of students; Academies & Grammar Schools; number of students; Primary and Common Schools; number of students; No of Scholars at Public Charge. And the last question is how many white persons over 20 in the household cannot read or write.

For family historians moving backwards through time each census offers less and less information on their families. However, moving forward from the 1790 census to this one each census offers more information than the last. Hopefully by the time you reach this census you will have developed good research skills and will be able to take the abundance of clues on this census to ferret out information found in local, county, state and federal records.

Approximate Birth Year based on age categories:

Age grouping

Born between

Under 5


5 & under 10


10 & under 15


15 & under 20


20 & under 30


30 & under 40


40 & under 50


50 & under 60


60 & under 70


70 & under 80


80 & under 90


90 & over 100


100 & over

1740 & before

The 1840 Census began on 1 June 1840 and allowed 18 months for completion. The first family recorded would have been on 1 June 1840 and the last on 31 Dec 1841. Remember that the information on the census schedule is as of 1 Jun 1840 no matter when the census taker visited the family. Some census takers did record the date they interviewed the family but the information was still to be "as of Jun 1, 1840".

The 6th US Census is found on 580 rolls of microfilm, National Archives publication M704. Missing on this census is Pike Co MS and Clarendon District SC.

Use any available indexes for help in locating your ancestor's surname. Use your Redbook or Handybook For Genealogist to determine when a county was formed and from which counties.

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1830 Census

1850 Census

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(1) 200 Years of Census Taking: Population and Housing Questions, 1790-1990. Washington, DC: Bureau of the Census, 1989.

(2) Catalogue of 1790-1890 Federal Population Census Data Available Through the Census Microfilm Rental Program; Bureau of the Census, 1992.

(3) List of the Public Acts of Congress, Contained In volume fifth; Acts of the twenty-fifth Congress of the United States; Statute III; 1840;March 3, 1839; Chap. XLLL. Pg 331-337;An Act providing for the sixth Census or enumeration of the Inhabitants of the United States.

(4) List of the Public Acts of Congress, Contained In volume fifth; Acts of the twenty-sixth Congress of the United States;: Statute I; Session I; 1840; Feb 25, 1840; Chap. III, Pg 368-369 ; An Act to amend the act "to provide for taking the sixth census or enumeration of the inhabitants of the United States," approved March third, eighteen hundred and thirty-nine.

(5) also: Statute II; 1841; Jan 14, 1841; Chap. III, Pg 411- ; An act further to amend the act entitled "An act to provide for taking the six census or enumeration of the inhabitants of the United States," approved March third, eighteen hundred and thirty-nine.

(6) also: Statute I; 1841; Chap: XV; Sept 1, 1841; pg 452-453; An act to amend the act entitled "An act to provide for taking the six census or enumeration of the inhabitants of the United States," approved March third, eighteen hundred and thirty-nine, and the acts amending the same.






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