What Can You Learn From The 1850 Census Records?

By | June 26, 2017

Genealogists are always looking for sources of information that they can use for their family history research. And the 1850 census records can be a vital asset to anyone who is interested in building their family tree. In this post I will show you what these records have to offer and where you can find them. So please read on.

1850 Census Records

I want to share with you my family history story before I continue

Census records are an important aid to the family historian as I will discuss below. But before I discuss their importance I wanted to share with you my family history journey and explain how I came to use census records for my own research.

My interest in my own family history began with the many stories and anecdotes that my father would recite to me and my two brothers. They were just fascinating to hear as they were from many, many years ago. As I grew older I felt how unique that these stories were and I wanted to record them.

Genealogy and Family History

I wanted to write them down so that they could be preserved for future generations of our family, and anyone else for that matter. These stories reflected the lives of my ancestors but also the area in which they lived in. So I knew that it was important to preserve them.

My first step was to ask my father did write down what he could remember into a notepad and then I would type them up onto my computer. It soon became apparent that I would need to add family charts so that other members of family reading these stories could see how these ancestors were connected to them. It added interest!

So I purchased a genealogy software program and added what relations I knew into the program. Then I took what research my father had already started and plugged that into my family tree that I had started to build.

Our family tree was coming along nicely and I was hooked. Hooked on finding ‘new‘ ancestors to the tree and adding as much information that I could find. I therefore then turned to other relatives who could help me with my search.

Then I looked at census records which were a great help in adding branches to our family tree. I was also particularly interested in finding cousins, so I added my ancestor’s siblings as well.

The reason for this diversion was because both of my parents are only children and so I never knew of any cousins when growing up. It was always in the back of my mind that maybe someday further down the family history road that I may make contact with living cousins. And I did just that.

There’s stories in those 1850 census records!

What I didn’t realize when I first began researching census records was that there was much more than the facts in them that I could add to my family tree. What do I mean by this? Well, let me explain!

Write A Family History Book

Look between the lines of the records!

There is more to the names and the associated facts that you find within the census records. If you look a little closer you will discover more areas of research and stories that you can add to your family history.

Gathering names, dates, places, etc. is the genealogy. But when it comes to stories then this is what we refer to as family history. You can find out more about the difference from my What Is Family History post.

So looking at the records you may see that your ancestor moved around the state or even the country a lot. Now why was this you may ask yourself?

Well it could have been because they were looking for work. Or it may have been because they were escaping poverty. Their migration could have been for any possible reason.

It does help if you learn about the history of the area by reading local history books. You can learn a lot about your ancestors and it has helped me in particular.

For example, in my case I noticed that my coal mining ancestor moved several times between censuses. And reading up on the history of the land I learned that one coal mine closed around the same time that my ancestor lived in the area. So it is quite possible that the reason he moved was because of this closure.

So that is just one example. There are many, many more stories that you can find if you look a little closer into the facts that you see in these census records.

So What’s In The 1850 Census Records?

Now when it comes to the 1850 census records you get a snapshot of your ancestors lives. At the time of this census, June 1st 1850, there were 31 states of the Union and also four territories.

Searching For Records

First time that individuals were recorded!

This census was the first time that the names of individuals would be recorded. This therefore makes it an important record for the family historian to find and use. It gives them an early account of your ancestor together with his or her family.

Although you will have to take care when it comes to recording the information that you find about other members of the household. This is because no relationships were added between each of the person listed and the person at the head of the household.

So please be careful when you record a ‘wife’. It could be possible that this ancestor is not the wife but maybe a sister, or even a sister-in-law for that matter.

The accuracy of these records exceeded that of previous censuses. This was because enumerators were given printed instructions to follow in order to gain information from the population.

The 11 key elements of the 1850 census records!


The first field is an important element for you in order to find your ancestor by their name. Please be careful though that you have found the right person. Check where this person was living at the time of the census records and also other information added, such as their occupation.

If you cannot find your ancestor within the records then there are two options that I can suggest to you. Try alternative spellings of their name, either their first name or surname, or even a combination of both. It’s quite possible that you will find your ancestor this way. I sure have.

The second option is to enter your ancestor’s initials instead of their first and middle names.


Obviously checking the age of the person listed is a good indication that you have found the right person. There however maybe an error when it comes to this piece of information so please just use it as a guide for now if you are not sure of your ancestor’s exact year of birth.


This key element will show whether you are looking at a male or female. This again may seem obvious but sometimes there are names that can be used for both a man or a woman. So it does help to have a little bit of clarity.


Later censuses would ask about the individual’s race. For the 1850 census records it was just the color of their skin. This can still help you to identify the race of your ancestor. And also where to possibly look for your ancestor’s birth certificate or records.

Possible answers included white, black or mulatto.


This information was only recorded for males and if they were older than 15 years of age. This is another good indicator for you to use to know whether you are looking at the right person and that they are in fact your ancestor.


Value of real estate

The government wanted to know the value of the land and in particular what the worth of the individual’s real estate was. This is a great piece of information that you can use if you intend to write up the story of your ancestors.

You can say whether they went from rags to riches or even the other way. I have found this element to be useful for me in this regard.


Again another good indicator that you can use to check whether you have found your ancestor’s record. Listed within this field is the state, territory or country that the individual was born in.

House and Land

Attended school/Married within the year

These are two simple yes or no questions that were asked in the 1850 census records. It is another good indication of the individual’s age, particular if the age recorded on the form is illegible.

Could read or write

This was asked if the individual was over the age of 20. It was important for the government to know the level of literacy of the population.

Infirmity, pauper or convict

Another key element that the government was interested in was the infirmity of the individual. The possible answers were deaf-mute, blind, insane or idiotic.

Deaf and dumb

The last question on the 1850 census record also asked whether the person listed was a pauper or even a convict. Today family historians have embraced their convict ancestors. This is particularly true for Australian citizens, where more than one fifth of the current population can claim to have a convict ancestor.

There are many ‘skeletons’ in the family closet and with the aid of this question you may find one in your family too.

Where Can I Find The 1850 Census Records?

So now you have learned what you can find within the 1850 census records. You have seen that they offer so much information that you can use for your genealogy research. But where can you find these records I here you ask?

Where can I find the 1880 census records

Your FREE option!

When it comes to the FREE option then I highly recommend that you to go to the FamilySearch website. I have found so many of my ancestors by using this site and that’s because they have millions of records for you to search through.

That’s not to say though that searching their site is a mammoth exercise. It’s not, it is relatively easy. However, this site does have its’ drawbacks.

One of them is that you may not be able to find all that you are looking for within their database. And you will therefore need to look at the paid options.

There will come a time when you will need to spend some money on your family history project. It is inevitable. It’s the same with any other hobby. You have to pay for equipment or whatever is needed for your hobby and genealogy is no exception.

Your PAID options!

The two websites that I suggest to you are Ancestry and Find My Past. The former I an sure that you are aware. There is a reason why Ancestry is the number one genealogy search website. And that is because they have billions of names for you to search through.

Credit: Ancestry

There is more of a chance for you to find your ancestors within the databases of these two sites. If you cannot find your ancestor on one of these sites then I do suggest that you check the other.

The reason for this is because these sites will index their records differently. There may also be transcription errors when it comes to the people responsible for entering details from these records into their database.

This is because the enumerator’s handwriting may not be legible and so the transcriber will have to have guessed what had been written. This can obviously lead to errors. And so if one site may have incorrectly indexed a record then you may have better luck finding your ancestor on the other site that I have offered you to search.

Final Thoughts

Now then the 1850 census records does offer you so much information that you can use to build out your family tree. But do not get carried away when it comes to finding ancestors and going off on a tangent.

It is so easy to do this. Trust me because I have done that. I have searched for one ancestor and then seen something of interest with say his partner. I have then followed the path and before you know it I am looking at a cousin’s records.

Now this is not to say that I am not interested in this cousin. As I have said at the start of this post I am fascinated with finding cousins. But in going along this path I have essentially stopped what I was doing and moved on.

You need to find all that you can on one ancestor, assimilate and enter that information and then move on to the next ancestor.

One way that you can make sense of what you have found is to write a family history book. By trying to put into words what you have found you can then ask yourself questions as to your ancestor’s life. Questions such as their migration as I have posed earlier.

Also, for anyone interested in your family history it is far easier for them to read a book rather than look at charts or reports. How dull is that?

By writing a story you make your family history far more enjoyable for them, and you as well. You can see where what is missing from your story of your ancestor’s life and what you need to research next about him or her.

Thank You and Please Leave A Comment

I hope you enjoyed this post explaining what you can learn from the 1880 census records. If you think that this post will be helpful to others then please share it with friends and family using the social media buttons below.

If you have any questions or comments then please leave a comment below. I would love to hear from you.

Author: Owain

Hello, Owain here. After researching my family history for a number of years I wanted to give back to the genealogy world. So here you will find guides, tips and product reviews that will help you on your genealogy journey.

2 thoughts on “What Can You Learn From The 1850 Census Records?

  1. Kathy

    I really like the fact that there’s a free option for family history research even though like you said, it’s inevitable that if you really want to get the information you really need to put your family tree together, the paid options provide some crucial pieces.

    I’ve been wanting to do more research on my family history and I like the fact that you mentioned that the great place to start is around the 1850 census records. I will take all of this information into great consideration as I continue to work on my family history research and I really do appreciate the post!

    1. Owain Post author

      Hi Kathy, thank you for your comment. Free is definitely a great way to start your family history research. I always urge people to do so before having to pay. It can help you save money which you can use for other information that you would need to spend on.

      The 1850 census records is a great early resource that you can use. I should have stated I need the post that you should backtrack through each of the censuses before you get to this one. That way you can follow the path of your ancestors. By doing this you can be more sure that you do have the correct person and family that you are searching for.


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