Maybe you – like me – have worked your way back to before the 1850 Census only to come upon the earlier censuses and say “oh, no. There are only heads of household listed,” and hear your research come to a screeching halt.
I agree, the pre-1850 censuses are harder to mine information from, but all is not lost. There may be more than meets the eye, if you realize what you’re seeing.
Women as Heads of Household
We know that the pre-1850 Censuses list only the heads of household. As such you would expect to find only men listed given the times and culture. Most women didn’t live alone. They lived with their husbands, brothers, or fathers.
So it may come as a surprise to find a woman listed in the census as the head of household. Now there’s a clue. Lights should be going off. What circumstances led to this woman being the head of household? Well, only further research will tell, but you can look at her age and the number and ages of those in the home with her. Does it reflect a young family, where she may be a young widow? Is she older and alone, an older widow? Who lives next to her? This would be particularly important because she may very well live on her own, but her family lives very near by…all more clues.
Further, if indeed she is a widow, you now have a fixed date that her husband had to have expired by, which gives you an ending parameter for a death date range, and a means to distinguish him from other persons of the same name with different death dates! Maybe this can be supporting data to confirm what you may know through other records.
Here’s an example:
According to probate records, A “Sarah Rhodes” died intestate (without a will) in 1838 in Lynn, Essex, MA, and therein is identified as a “singlewoman.” This leads me to think she’s a widow in 1838, with the obvious conclusion that her husband died sometime before.
Now, I can turn to the 1830 Census for Lynn, Essex, MA and see if there is a Sarah Rhodes listed as head of household. And, indeed, she is listed as a head of household. (see below). I have reason to believe this is the right Sarah because next door is Joseph Rhodes, whom I believe is her brother-in-law. Now, if I add the information found in the probate and 1830 Census together I come to the conclusion that Sarah’s husband died before 1830.
Would you normally expect to find a death date in the 1830 Census? No, but with a little connecting-the-dots, that’s exactly what I found.
Take another look at those early census records. There may be a nugget of information that can unlock a mystery just waiting to be found.