Census Research Research Tips

Finding Unnamed Ancestors on the 1790-1840 Censuses

The 1790-1840 census records only listed heads of household by name. However, that does not mean you can’t put together a list of who was in the household. You just look at other clues like these.

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Have you used the 1790-1840 census records in your genealogy research? Many beginning genealogists skip these valuable record sources because they do not believe they will include anything useful for them. After all, these early census records only recorded the names of the heads of households. Everyone else in the household was nameless, though the 1810-1840 census records break down males and females in each household by age group and free or slave status. The 1840 census even lists how many people living in the household are Revolutionary War veterans. This might not seem like much to go on to discover the people who lived with your early ancestors (and discover new ancestors in the process), but it can be done. You just have to know where to look for clues to the identities of those check marks under the gender and age categories on these old census records. Here’s how to do it.

Make a Chart to Get Organized

You need to know who you’re looking for, so, using your selected census, get out a piece of paper and list the people in the household by ages and genders, along with the name of the head of the household. It’s better to do it in descending order by age group. Start with the head of household and his (or sometimes her) age group. Then list the age group of the oldest female. Then go with the age group of the oldest male, oldest female, next oldest male, next oldest female, and down the line to the youngest male and female. Looking at the age groups, figure out the range of years when each person would have had to been born. List that date range by each person on your list.

Start Checking Later Censuses

Starting in 1850, individual members of each household were listed by name and age. Look in the 1850 census first, since it will be the closest to the census you used that did not include names. Children are more likely to still be in the household in this census.

Look up the name of the head of household and try to find that person in the 1850 census. If you’re using Ancestry, you can filter your search results by location and age. Start with the location your ancestor was in on the earlier census. If you can’t find them there in 1850, do a nationwide search, still filtering by age.

If you find your head of household, look at the other people living with them. Check their ages and genders and try to match them up with the males and females in the different age groups from the earlier census. You can often identify a lot of unnamed people from earlier census records this way.

Search Later Censuses By Last Name and Age for Grown Children

If some of the children from earlier censuses are not living in the head of the household’s home in 1850, it could be they either died or left home to find work or get married. It’s easier to search for males because you can search by last name, area, and age on later census records online. If you find someone who seems like they could be a match, check online family trees for them to see if anyone has placed them in your head of household’s family. If you can’t find them in another family tree, look at increasingly later census records to see if the head of household from the earlier census is living with them at some point. It was not unusual for men to take in their aging parents in earlier centuries.

If you’re looking for a female who was not named in an earlier census, or if you found her in the 1850 census and want to find her married name, do a search of the census records for 1860 and beyond, searching by first name only, plus age, and location. You will probably get at least one hit that seems likely. Look at online family trees, online marriage, and death records, and additional census records to find the names of the parents (or any parents living with her) to see if she matches up to your head of household’s family.

As you get names you can definitely place in the 1790-1840 census records, write them in on your paper chart. You can use this information to fill in your family tree software later. Other places you can check to get names of a parent for children that may include the name of your head of household to confirm the relationship include FindAGrave, FamilySearch, and the various state pages of the US GenWeb project. Keep looking in all the places you can that might have records on this family, and soon, you will have a more robust, well-fleshed out family tree based on a basic list of age ranges and genders from the early census records.



Will founded Ancestral Findings in 1995 and has been assisting researchers for over 25 years to reunite them with their ancestors.