Last time I discussed the pre-1850 U.S Federal Population Census records, which, despite their seemingly meager data, can provide useful clues for the genealogist. It is wise not to overlook these handwritten documents which have been copied and recopied, indexed and microfilmed. It is the filmed images of those second-hand copies we are looking at on Heritage Quest or Ancestry.com, and while it is important to allow for the possibility of errors, one must be grateful that even these sparse records still exist in some form.
By 1850, more information becomes available, though sadly Heritage Quest has not indexed 1830, 1840, or 1850. Try Ancestry.com at the library – I have found that computers are almost always available here in Sonoma, and, if not, time limits will give you a turn eventually. Another avenue is usgenweb.org. This free site will lead you directly to your state of interest, and the counties within it. Check to see if a particular county's census has been indexed online by some individual or organization. If so, make a note of the location details and page number, then browse HQ's images, which are available for all extant censuses. (Be aware that page numbering can be confusing, as there are often two sets of numbers. Also, there may be two sides to a "page," meaning two images have the same number.) Even if an index contains extensive information, try to find a copy of the filmed image – there may be more!
William Dollarhide's The Census Book also lists published census indexes for various states. Some include added information that the indexers found in other sources. Locate these online, by borrowing them on Inter-Library Loan, or in the Family History Library catalog, which may list filmed copies you can borrow to view at the local Family History Center.
If you have searched 1850 census records, you know that it is the first one to list all persons in each household, with their ages as of the census day (in theory), and their places of birth. There are other details, but these are the ones we usually go for first. Relationships are not shown, as they are from 1880 on, so be wary of assuming the oldest male and female in a household are necessarily husband and wife. It is quite likely, but further proof should be sought. Assuming for the moment that they are a married couple, look at the age of the oldest child to estimate the probable date of marriage (if the "wife" is 21 and the next oldest individual is 15, there must have been a previous marriage, or the mother has died and these are both children of the head of household. Look at his age to see if this is plausible.
Listing of birthplaces gives a picture of the family members' origins and wanderings. The parents may have been born in different states, and their children in yet other states. Some people just have a hard time settling down! With all names listed, locating an unmarried brother-in-law or widowed parent in a household, with his or her birthplace, may provide additional clues for research. Of course, these may not be relatives, but make the assumption to see if it can be proven.
1860 and 1870 censuses have pretty much the same information – all three have space for listing the value of the householder's real estate, occupation, literacy, and whether married in the year preceding. (This can be an indirect way of determining whether there IS a marriage) Occupations and indication of literacy can help distinguish between two individuals with the same name. The fellow who teaches school in 1850 is not likely to be the person "unable to write or write" listed in 1860.
Next time I'll discuss the 1880 census, everyone's favorite (mine, at least), and later enumerations.