Understanding the 1850 Census Questions

In March 1849, Congress enacted a bill establishing a census board, whose membership consisted of the Secretary of State, the Attorney General, and the Postmaster General. This board was “to prepare and cause to be printed such forms and schedules as may be necessary for the full enumeration of the inhabitants of the United States; and also proper forms and schedules for collecting in statistical tables, under proper heads, such information as to mines, agriculture, commerce, manufactures, education, and other topics as will exhibit a full view of the pursuits, industry, education, and resources of the country.”

The Congress also authorized the creation of the Department of the Interior in March 1849, and part of the enabling act provided that the Secretary of the Interior should “exercise all the supervisory and appellate powers now exercised by the Secretary of State in relation to all acts of marshals and others in taking and returning the census of the United States.”

The seventh census was governed by the provisions of an act of May 23, 1850, which directed that six schedules be used to collect the information requested by the Congress. The enumeration began on June 1, 1850, and was to be completed, with the results returned to the Secretary of the Interior by November 1, 1850.

The Census Board prepared and printed six schedules for the 1850 census as follows:

  1. Schedule No. 1 – Free Inhabitants.
  2. Schedule No. 2 – Slave Inhabitants.
  3. Schedule No. 3 – Mortality. This schedule collected data— including name, age, sex, color, and place of birth—on persons having died during the year ending June 1, 1850. Additional data were collected on constitutional and marital status; profession, occupation, or trade; month of death; disease or cause of death; number of days ill; and any suitable remarks.
  4. Schedule No. 4 – Production of Agriculture. This schedule collected data on agricultural production for the year ending June 1, 1850.
  5. Schedule No. 5 – Products of Industry. This schedule collected data on the products of industry for the year ending June 1, 1850, and applied to all forms of productive industry, including manufactures (except household manufactures), mining, fisheries, and all kinds of mercantile, commercial, and trading businesses.
  6. Schedule No. 6 – Social Statistics. This schedule collected aggregate statistics for each subdivision enumerated on the following topics: valuation of real estate; annual taxes; colleges, academies, and schools; seasons and crops; libraries; newspapers and periodicals; religion; pauperism; crime; and wages.

Each of these schedules was supplemented by printed instructions in which the intention of each inquiry was explained. In addition, each assistant was supplied with a “sample” schedule that had been completed the way the Census Board had intended. Each schedule included a space at the head for the entry of the name of the civil division for which the enumeration was made and the date on which the inquiries were completed. Assistants were required to sign each completed schedule.

Joseph C.G. Kennedy supervised the enumeration and compilation of census data at the end of the 1850 Census. He served as “Secretary” of the Census Board from May 1, 1849 to May 31, 1850, before being appointed Superintendent Clerk, by the Secretary of the Interior. Kennedy was succeeded as Superintendent Clerk by James D. B. De Bow, on March 18, 1853. Upon completing the compilation of census results, De Bow resigned the office on December 31, 1854, and the census office was disbanded.

1850 Census Guide – Questions & Information

The 1850 census covered the following states:

  1. Alabama
  2. Arkansas
  3. California
  4. Connecticut
  5. Delaware
  6. District of Columbia
  7. Florida Territory
  8. Georgia
  9. Illinois
  10. Indiana
  11. Iowa
  12. Kentucky
  13. Louisiana
  14. Maine
  15. Maryland
  16. Massachusetts
  17. Michigan
  18. Minnesota Territory
  19. Mississippi
  20. Missouri
  21. New Hampshire
  22. New Jersey
  23. New Mexico Territory
  24. New York
  25. North Carolina
  26. Ohio
  27. Oregon Territory
  28. Pennsylvania
  29. Rhode Island
  30. South Carolina
  31. Tennessee
  32. Texas
  33. Utah Territory
  34. Vermont
  35. Virginia
  36. Wisconsin

I have not found any record of missing schedules for the 1850 census.

Information Found Within the 1850 Census – Free Inhabitants

  • Name of each person.
  • Name of the county, parish, township, town, or city where the family resides
  • Age
  • Sex
  • Color (Race)
  • Birthplace
  • Whether married in the last year
  • Profession, occupation, or trade of each person over 15 years of age
  • Value of Real Estate
  • Whether deaf, blind, dumb, insane, idiotic, pauper, or criminal
  • Whether able to speak or speak English
  • Whether the person attended school within the previous year

Genealogy Strategy for the 1850 Census

The 1850 census is considered the first of the “modern census.” It was the first to provide great vital information on all members at a residence, by enumerating their age and birth location. The 1850 census also provided more in depth information on the economic status of our ancestors. We’re now able to determine whether they were land holders, as well as the type of employment they had and whether they had any schooling.

  1. Location of the Household
    As in all census, the location of the household at the time the census was taken becomes a valuable tool for further research allowing you to concentrate on records of that time period in that particular location. The 1850 census will provide you the district, township, and county of your ancestor.
  2. Establishing the Composition of a Family
    For the first time within a census, individual names are provided. No relationships were given in the census, instructions were provided to the census taker as to which order to enumerate a household. “The names are to be written, beginning with the father and mother; or if either, or both, be dead, begin with some other ostensible head of the family; to be followed, as far as practicable, with the name of the oldest child residing at home, then the next oldest, and so on to the youngest, then the other inmates, lodgers and borders, laborers, domestics, and servants.”
  3. Age of Inhabitants
    The 1870 census (column 13) indicates the month in which the person was born, if born “within the year,” that is between June 1, 1869 and May 31, 1870. While not an exact age, the fact that you’re provided the year each person is born will assist you in finding birth records.
  4. Freedmen Research
    Freed men of color were enumerated identically to any other free person. There were a total of 424,183 freedmen enumerated in the 1850 census of the United States.
  5. Tracking the Migration
    The 1850 census provides the birthplace of each individual. Along with the age of each individual this can enable the genealogist to track the location of the family at different years in the past. The instructions provided to the enumerators requested that they provide the initials or name of the state, or country of each person enumerated. Some enumerators would provide an even further breakdown, such as county or township, especially when the birth occurred in the state of the enumeration.
  6. Occupation
    For the first time, the occupation of each family member over 15 is recorded. Indication of a farmer would point to further searching of Schedule 4, agricultural census. A mention of a profession would indicate possible search of a professional directory. Clergy were enumerated as well under occupation, and the genealogist should search within the records of the denomination indicated.
  7. Foreigners
    Though previous schedules (1830-1840) showed foreigners not yet naturalized, the new 1850 census only provided the birthplace of each person. Since the enumerator was supposed to provide the country of birth (if not born in US), you can use that information in searching immigration records.
  8. Real Estate
    An indication of real estate value might point to land or tax records.
  9. At School
    An indication of being at school within a household might point to local school records.
  10. Insane
    An indication of insane within a household might point to guardianship or institutional records.
  11. Convict
    The indication of a persons enumeration as a convict is rare, unless the census actually finds them in the jail at the time of the census. Furthermore, a person in jail, may be listed twice, if his home was in a different district. Instructions given to the enumerator was to ask, or use their own knowledge and county records as a source, in identifying those who had been a “criminal” within the past year.
  12. Slave Research
    Slaves for the first time were enumerated in separate schedules. There were a total of 3,200,600 slaves enumerated in the 1840 census of the United States. The 1850 questionnaire relating to slave inhabitants collected the names of slave owners; number of slaves; the slaves color, sex, age, and whether deaf and dumb, blind, insane, or idiotic; the numbers of fugitives from the state; and the number manumitted. Researchers who have identified a slave holder of a possible ancestor should then consult probate or tax records for possible further identity of specific individuals. Because there are ages given with the slaves, the genealogist is able (with verification from additional records) to determine the birth order in families, especially where names and sex of all members of a slave family are known.
  13. Native American Research
    It is possible to find your Native American ancestor in the 1850 census only if they were residing in an area being taxed. If this is the case, then your ancestor would be enumerated as any other tax paying citizen was.

1850 Census Forms


  1. Source: Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research. Study 00003: Historical Demographic, Economic, and Social Data: U.S., 1790-1970. Anne Arbor: ICPSR.

1850 Census,

Partridge, Dennis N. United States Census Guide. Copyright 2008-2013.

1 thought on “Understanding the 1850 Census Questions”

  1. Is there any uniform method for identifying widows? I am seeing “W” in the ‘occupation’ field, for women heads of household, leading me to suspect these are widows.

    Was this one census taker’s methodology? Or was there any directive to do this?


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