1850 Census

(c) Linda Haas Davenport (Updated 2007)

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As we move backwards in time the 1850 census is the last one that lists all members of a household by name. After this census you will be faced with nothing except the name of the head of household and age grouping for everyone else. In traveling through the census from 1790 to 1850 each census gives a tiny bit more information and the 1850 seems like a gold mine of information, but in real life we travel backwards and things get much more difficult after this census. Now is the time to review all of your census abstracts, all of your accumulated data and complete a research sheet on each family member that is alive on the 1850 census. Hopefully you have completed good solid research and have followed every lead in each census because from this census back you'll need all the help your accumulated information can give you.

The first census Act in 1790, for all practical purposes, governed the taking of the census through 1840. The basic purpose of the census was to count the population as of a given date. The only names on those censuses were the head of household and that was more of a way to help the census taker keep track of which houses he had visited than anything else. From the 1800 census through the 1840 census things like the age categories changed and the statisticians were successful in adding certain economic and social questions to the census, but overall things were much the same.

Then came the 1850 Census Act. The basic purpose of counting the population as of a given date did not change. Just about everything else did. The greatest change having to do with how people were counted. With this census everyone was to be listed by name. The schedule was reduced to one page and social and economic questions made up the bulk of the questions on the schedules. However, there were five supplemental schedules - Schedule 2, Slaves; Schedule 3, Manufacturing, Schedule 4, Agriculture, Schedule 5, Statistics of Industry, Schedule 6, Social Statistics.

With this Act Congress authorized the opening of first Census Office to handle the census schedules being sent to Washington. It was charged with compiling statistics from the schedules and making reports of those to Congress. The office was to be closed once it had completed its work. The taking of the census was still under the jurisdiction of the U.S. District Courts and the U.S. Marshals were still in charge of the actual enumeration but the U.S. District Court clerks were removed from having anything to do with the census records. Beginning in 1850 the Secretary of State in each State or Territory assumed responsibility for the collection of schedules from the U.S. Marshals and was charged with, among other things, the retention of the schedules.

With all the good things the 1850 Census Act accomplished there was one change that, from the family historian's point of view, couldn't have been much worse. If you remember nothing else about the 1850 Census Act you need to remember this.

The Congress directed that an original and two copies of the 1850 schedules be made. This wasn't much different from prior censuses except for the change in how the copies were to be made. For the prior censuses either the census taker himself made the copy or the U.S. Marshal did. This changed drastically for the 1850 census.

The estimated number of individuals in each U.S. Marshal's jurisdiction was estimated to be approximately 20,000, apportioned among individual census takers. There were six schedules for this census, the population schedule and five supplemental schedules. According to the Instructions for Enumerators (1850) the U.S. Marshal was sent enough blank forms to complete an original and two copies.

The 1850 Census Act and the Instructions for Enumerators (U.S. Marshal section) are in conflict. The Instructions for Enumerators states: "By the fifth section [of the act] it is provided, that you shall transmit, forthwith, "one set of the returns to the census office." This set should be transmitted without any delay, and in convenient sized packages." However, the Act itself states the U.S. Marshal shall make a Clean copy of all census schedules and forward this copy to the State Department for his jurisdiction.

directed that the U.S. Marshal collect the schedules from the census takers for all counties under his jurisdiction. Once all schedules were in his hands he was to copy each schedule to produce a "Clean" copy. Upon completion of the Clean copy the original schedules were to be deposited at the local courthouse for review by the county's populace. The people of the county had the right to request correction of anything on the census that pertained to them personally. The county courthouses were directed to retain the original census schedules. Once the time frame for review was over The Clean copy was to be forwarded to the Secretary of State's office, thus picking up the name State Copy. When the Clean (State) copy reached the Secretary of State's office, a clerk in that office was to make a copy of the Clean copy. The copy made by the State Department's clerk (called the Federal copy) was to be forwarded to the new Census Office. The state department was directed to retain the Clean copy.

What all of this means is that the census schedules of the 1850 census we see today are either a copy of the original schedules or are a copy of a copy. Perhaps some of the original schedules actually made it to Washington, but it's a ver small chance. You can see why you might be missing a family that you KNOW to be in a certain location or a name is so horribly misspelled.

No one can say if the different State Departments actually made a Federal Copy or if they simply forwarded the State (Clean) Copy to Washington. It is assumed that because it was widely publicized that the Census records would be on display at the county courthouses that a set (original or otherwise) were actually displayed. I would assume that there were enough "Noisy Nellys" around who wanted to know about their neighbors that an uproar would have been raised if they weren't.

Almost all of The State Departments say they have no copies and only a very, very few of the original schedules survive at local courthouses. A suggestion made by some genealogist is that the State Departments gave their copies to local politicians to use as mailing lists. Whatever the reason for the loss of the original and State copies we, of today, are, in probably the majority of the cases, left with only copies or copies of copies.

A comparison of some of the surviving originals and the 1850 microfilm was made. Harry Holingsworth reported in his article "Little Known Facts About the US Census" in The American Genealogist Vol 53 (1977), p.ll (reprinted in William Dollarhide's article "Census Facts and Figures" in the July/August 1998 issue of Heritage Quest). "I have personally found many discrepancies between the Federal and State copies themselves, and vast differences between them and the originals (i.e. the county copies)! Whole names have been changed or omitted. Ages have been copied wrong. Whereas, in the originals, the surnames of each family are generally written over and over again, in the copies the word "ditto" or its abbreviation "do" appears instead. When written over and over a surname has much less chance of being written incorrectly."

Bear all of this in mind when you are searching the 1850 Census records. Don't rely on indexes and read the census line by line with an eye out for misspellings and errors. Don't rely on the age of just one census compare the age in several census records.

This also was the first census in which Enumeration Districts were assigned. Maps were given to the enumerators and they were to follow the map in collecting their information. Enumeration district Maps are available from the National Archives. We can only hope that the census taker followed these maps and instructions and assume that the families did truly live next to each other. Always list at least 10 families before and after your own family. People tended to move in groups of family, friends or neighbors. As young men came of age or women married many times fathers gave a portion of their land to these young people. You cannot afford to ignore the neighbors found on this census. Compare the names of neighbors found on this census with prior census records to see how many of the same names are found on each.

Congress set the Enumeration Date as 1 Jun 1850 with 5 months to complete the census.

Example of 1850 Census Schedule


Schedules cover only 1 page and are broken down by: Dwelling # in the order visited; Family # in the order visited; The Name of Every Person Whose Usual Place of Abode on the 1st Day of June 1850 was in this family; Age; Sex; Color (White, Black or Mulatto); Profession, Occupation or trade of each male person over 15 years of age; Value of Real Estate; Birthplace naming the State, Territory or Country; Married within year; In school within year; Cannot read or write; Whether Deaf, Dumb, Blind, Insane, Pauper or Convict

Take note of the Dwelling Number and Family Number. The Dwelling number was the number of houses that were counted and the family number was the actual number of families counted. By paying attention to this number you can determine when more than one family lived in the same house. This can, at times, cause you to not eliminate a family that seems to have to many people.

Just as this was the first census to record all names of persons in the household it is the first census to want the names of people who's usually lived in this residence was with this family as of the 1 Jun date. This means that a person who normally lived with the family would be recorded whether that person was actually in the house on the 1st day of June or not.

When using this census to try to determine age, find marriage records or school records, bear in mind that the "year" being recorded is from Jun 2, 1849 through Jun 1, 1850. So a person who was married "within the year" could well have been married in the last half of 1849 or a person who attended school could have done so in the winter of 1849.

William Dollarhide in his "Census Facts and Figures" article appearing in the July/August 1998 issue of Heritage Quest pg 12-13, explains why the completion of the census dropped from 18 months in 1840 to 5 months in 1850. "Soon after the Census Office was created in early 1850, two young men from Poughkeepsie, New York approached the director with a proposal. They had invented a "counting machine" they thought could help in tabulating the census returns. They demonstrated a prototype machine that used flat metal cards with slots, and holes punched in them in a precise pattern so that a metal rod could be passed through the holes in the same location. By a process of elimination, cards with a particular pattern of holes could be removed, and in the process, they could be counted. The Director was impressed. ....... That little two-man company that presented their invention to the Census Office back in 1850 goes by the name of IBM today." Each year IBM improved their process and each census after 1850 used a "computer" to tabulate the results of the census.

The 1850 Census record is the first to offer the names and ages of everyone within the household. There is still no "relationship" listed so you can't be sure if a person residing in the household is truly a relation or not, but for the first time you have individual names. Note that the 1850 census tells you if the person was married within the year. If yes then a search for marriage records begins. Was the person in school? If yes are there still school records in existence? Can the person read & write? A will signed with an X probably doesn't belong to a person who can read and write. Use these clues to help separate people with the same names. Use this census to compare with the earlier censuses age groupings. This will further help to sort families.

Occupation can lead to searches of court records for business licenses, newspapers for advertisements, if a minister then search church records. Any dollar amount listed in the "Real Estate" column should lead to a search of land records.

A Manufacturing Schedule (called an Industrial Schedule) and a Farm Schedule (called an Agriculture Schedule) were prepared separately from the regular census schedules. The Agriculture Schedule should always be searched if you ancestor listed his occupation as farmer. This record can help distinguish between men with the same name, document land holdings leading to follow up with deeds and other land records, identify free black men, sharecroppers and white overseers who may not appear in any other records. Many of these "Special Schedules" are found at the State Archives, many have been microfilmed by the LDS and several used to be housed at Duke University in NC. From the 1850 Census forward try to ferret out these special schedules, the information found is well worth the effort.

Another "Special Census" taken in 1850 was the Slave Census. It lists the slave owner's name and then the number of slaves in broad age groupings. This slave census is usually found on a roll or rolls of microfilm by itself, but I have found it at the end of the microfilm for a given county or sometimes a town. Check a catalog of microfilm call numbers to find the slave schedules rolls, but never neglect to check the end of the town or county for this information. For those people searching for African-Americans this is the first true mention of a possible ancestor. Knowing the name of a man who owned slaves leads to searching court records, deeds (yes deed books - slaves were considered property and were bought and sold with deeds being recorded) and old newspaper accounts. Often slaves for sale were listed in the paper, with descriptions, ages, names, etc., and run-away slaves were also listed.

Prior to 1850 census members of the social services and medical profession were worrying about the number of deaths and epidemics throughout the US. In 1850 a special Mortality Schedule was added to the census. It was to record everyone who had died between 1 Jun 1849 and 1 Jun 1850. Of course not everyone was listed. The 1850 census takers didn't vary much from the ones that had gone before, some did an excellent job, some a poor job with everything in between. Responsible, knowledgeable people weren't always the ones to answer the census takers questions and memories weren't always reliable and then again some people just simply didn't want to give information to the census taker. But, this is still a schedule that should always be searched. Deaths were not officially recorded in 1850 and this might be the only reference you will ever find to a death or death date.

In checking the Mortality census for 1850 I found that a young man of 13 had hanged himself. This lead to a newspaper account, a corner's report and the grave of not only the young man but several members of his family. I probably would never have known this young man existed if I had not found this record much less found as much information on the family as I did. On the other hand it is believed that my gggrandfather (John Haas, Lee Co, MS) died in 1879, but he is not found anywhere on the 1880 Mortality Schedule. So it's a toss up but one that you can't afford to pass up.

Between 1850 and 1880 there were a group of special schedules call the "Social Statistics" schedules. These included a listing of cemeteries within city boundaries, including maps with cemeteries marked; names and addresses and a general description of all cemeteries, procedures for interment, cemeteries no longer functioning and the reason for their closing. The schedules also list such things as trade societies, lodges, clubs, including names and addresses of officers of these groups. Churches were listed with a brief history, a statement of doctrine and policy and a statistical list of members. These schedules are scattered. Some have been microfilmed by the LDS, some are at the National Archives and some ended up at State Archives or large Universities. Although not easy to find they are a gold mine of information and well worth the effort it takes to unearth them.

The 1850 census is on 1,009 rolls of Microfilm, # M432. Counties missing from this census are: Contra Costa, San Francisco and Santa Clara CA; Clarendon District SC.

The 1850 census has been indexed by many societies and companies. Check your local genealogy library, genealogy society and the web for them. Keep in mind that these indexes are only a tool and be prepared to scan a county's microfilm line by line.


Excellent site for background info on all the special schedules for the Census



As with any of my essays I appreciate any corrections, additional information or comments. [an error occurred while processing this directive]


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