1850 U.S. Census
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The 1850 census began on 1 June 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.”13 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.