1850 U.S. Census

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The United States Federal Census

This article is part of a series.
Overview of the U.S. Census
Finding and Reading U.S. Census Records
1790 U.S. Census
1800 U.S. Census
1810 U.S. Census
1820 U.S. Census
1830 U.S. Census
1840 U.S. Census
1850 U.S. Census
1860 U.S. Census
1870 U.S. Census
1880 U.S. Census
1890 U.S. Census
1900 U.S. Census
1910 U.S. Census
1920 U.S. Census
1930 U.S. Census
1940 U.S. Census
Census Indexes and Finding Aids
Using the Soundex with Census Records
Non-Population Schedules and Special Censuses
State and Local Censuses
Census Substitutes
African American Census Schedules
Reconstructed 1790 Census Schedules
Censuses of Native Americans
List of Useful Census References

This article originally appeared in "Census Records" by Loretto Dennis Szucs and Matthew Wright in The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy

The 1850 census began on June 1, 1850. The enumeration was completed within five months. The official census population count was 23,191,876.

Questions Asked in the 1850 Census

The 1850 census form called for the number of the dwelling house and family in order of visitation; each person's name, age, sex, and color; the territory or country of his or her birth; whether the person attended school or was married within the year; whether the person could read or write if over age twenty; whether the person was deaf-mute, blind, insane, or 'idiotic'; whether or not the person was a fugitive from the state; and real estate value of the dwelling house. The census also asked the occupation of males over the age of fifteen.

Separate slave schedules for 1850 asked the name of each slave owner, the number of slaves owned, and the number of slaves manumitted (released from slavery). While the schedules, unfortunately, do not name individual slaves, they asked for age, color, and sex; whether or not the slave was deaf-mute, blind, insane, or idiotic; and whether or not the slave was a fugitive from the state.

Other Significant Facts about the 1850 Census

The 1850 census is frequently referred to as the first modern census because of dramatically improved techniques employed for it and repeated in later years. Printed instructions to the enumerators account for a greater degree of accuracy compared with earlier censuses. The instructions explained the responsibilities of enumerators, census procedures, the manner of completing the schedules, and the intent behind census questions. 'In the 1850 census and thereafter, enumerators were required by law to make their count by personal inquiry at every dwelling and with every family, and not otherwise.'<ref>Delle Donne, Federal Census Schedules.</ref> As enumerations of districts were completed, the enumerator was instructed to make two additional copies: one to be filed with the clerk of the county court and one to be sent to the secretary of the state or territory. The original (or one of the copies) was to be sent to the Census Office for tabulation.

The census showed the names of persons who died after 1 June of the census year and omitted children born after that date. It should be noted that many of the census takers did not get around to their assigned districts until late in 1850; some were as late as October and November.

The enumeration listed every person in the United States except Indians living on government reservations or living on unsettled tracts of land. Indians not in tribal relations, whether of mixed blood or not, who were not living among the white population or on the outskirts of towns, were counted as part of the taxable population. The count was designed to determine the apportioning of representatives among the states.

Research Tips for the 1850 Census

The 1850 schedules included the free and slave population and mortality, agriculture, and industry data. The inclusion of so much personal data for the first time in the 1850 census is an obvious boon to genealogists and social historians. For the first time it is possible to identify families and other groups by name. The inclusion of birthplaces for every individual allow for the plotting of migration routes.

Ages provided in the 1850 census allow researchers to establish dates for searching vital records. While few states officially recorded vital records that early, religious and other records may be pursued with estimated dates of birth gleaned from the census.

The identification of previous residences points to still other record sources to be searched in named localities. The indication of real estate ownership would suggest that land and tax records should be searched. The 1850 census may provide starting information for searching marriage records, probates, and a number of other genealogically important records. Probable family relationships may also be determined through 1850 census records, though it is easy to come to the wrong conclusions. The 1850 census provides valuable insights into occupations and property value. It may also make it possible to spot remarriages and step-relationships and to determine approximate life spans.

For a state-by-state listing of census schedules, see The 1790'1890 Federal Population Censuses: Catalog of National Archives Microfilm. For boundary changes and identification of missing census schedules, see Thorndale's and Dollarhide's, Map Guide to the U.S. Federal Censuses, 1790'1920.

Questions to ask yourself; tasks to perform

  1. Although relationships are not specified, what does the household appear to be?
  2. If the head of household appears to be married and the oldest child is older than 10, is that person in the 1840 census?
    1. Do the counts of people in the 1840 census match this family?
  3. Where were the children born?
    1. If they were born in a different state, the family has probably moved.
  4. Is there a big gap in the age of the children anywhere?
    1. Maybe a child died.
    2. Or the first wife died and the father remarried.
  5. Are all the surnames the same in the family?
    1. If not, this suggests some sort of blended family.
  6. Can you find this family in the 1860 census?
    1. Have they moved to a different county or state?
    2. Who is new in 1860?
    3. Who is missing?
    4. Were they old enough to have been married?
  7. Write down the 5-10 heads of households before and after the family you are looking at. These may be relatives or friends that will help you in the future.

Sourcing the 1850 Census

Source citation format:

1850 U.S. census, COUNTY_NAME County, STATE_NAME, population schedule, CITY_OR_DISTRICT, p. XXX (stamped/penned), dwelling DDD, family FFF, PERSON; Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed DATE); database and digital images, citing NARA microfilm publication, M432, roll RRR.

  • If the City or District is not available, leave it blank.
  • If there is neither a stamped or penned page number, instead use [unnumbered]
  • For a family, instead of just the PERSON's name, use HEAD_OF_HOUSEHOLD household
  • DATE should be in the format of DD MMM YYYY
  • RRR is the microfilm roll number and should be available in the source information on Ancestry.com

Comparison of Census Information, 1790-1940

Personal Info on Census 1790 1800 1810 1820 1830 1840 1850 1860 1870 1880 1900 1910 1920 1930 1940
Name of family head only
Headcount by age, gender, ...
Standard census form
Names of all individuals
Profession or occupation
Place of birth
Attended school that year
Highest grade completed
Married that year
Read or write
Deaf, blind, insane, idiotic, ...
Real estate value
Personal estate value
Separate slave schedule
Father of foreign birth
Mother of foreign birth
Month of birth
Month of birth that year
Male citizen over 21 years
Male over 21 denied vote
Visitation number of dwelling
Visitation number of family
Street name in city
House number in city
Relationship to family head
Marital status
Month of marriage that year
No. of months unemployed
Father's birthplace sup
Mother's birthplace sup
Sickness on census day
Year of birth
No. of years present marriage
Mother how many children sup
Number of children living
Year of immigration to US
No. of years in US
Naturalization status
Months attended school


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