April 7, 2021

Pages 3329
Whole Number 144

The Importance of Census Records

Like each of the federal censuses taken prior to 1840 (1790 through 1830), that for 1840 gives only the names of persons who were identified as heads of households. Ninety percent of those heads of households in 1840 were, as we might expect, males. Following each name, there is an enumeration of persons living in that household according to sex and age categories. Slaves belonging in each household were also counted, with males and females in separate columns.

In using census records for genealogical research, certain facts must be kept in mind. One is that it was households, not families, that were recorded. In addition to a wife and children of the head of the household, others living there were also enumerated, whether they were employees, roomers, relatives who had been taken in, or sometimes neighbor children who had been given a home. Usually, of course, a household consisted of parents and their child ren, but one can never be sure. Older children in a family who were working for a neighbor (and living in his household), would be enumerated there, although we can imagine a census taker who may have counted that person as though he were still living at home.

It should also be kept in mind that households were sometimes missed entirely by the census taker, which means that the absence of a name on a census may not prove that that person was not living there at the time the census was taken. There are instances where the same household was listed twice. Census takers sometimes misspelled names, and errors regarding age categories were frequent. It should be kept in mind that, besides having his name listed, the head of the household was also enumerated along with the other members. The Matthew Sparks named in 1840 as heading a household in Benton County, Alabama, for example, was surely also the male enumerated as aged between 30 and 40; the female in the same category was probably his wife, and it does not appear that they had any children - - at least none were enumerated. (Benton County also illustrates another point to watch for - - the name of that county was changed in 1858 to Calhoun County.) New counties were often formed between the times (every ten years) that federal censuses were taken.

Page numbers have been assigned to the census records (which are preserved at the National Archives in Washington, D. C.), and these are given here in parentheses following each name.

A comparison of a census record with that of a different year can often be helpful. For example, the Daniel Sparks shown as between 30 and 40 and heading a household in Benton (now Calhoun) County in 1840, appeared in the same county in 1850 (when the member of every household was shown by name, age, sex, and birthplace). Daniel's age in 1850 was 49, and from the listing of other family members, we can be fairly sure who his wife and children actually were that had been enumerated in 1840.