Research Early US Census Records for Genealogy Clues to Bust Brick Walls


When researching in early US Census Records, you will face numerous challenges if you don't plan. These records are challenging for most beginning genealogists because the enumerators didn't record every individual's names in the household.


However, you can find great clues to open up your brick walls if you work methodically through the records.

Watch this research plan development process in action in this video.

The US Census records between 1790 - 1840 challenge most beginning genealogists. The documents record a list of household heads (be they male or female) and a tally of how many people are in the home and their age range and gender combination. You might also find out if an ancestor owns slaves or a free person of color.


This blog post doesn’t walk you through the process of how to research specifically in Early US Census Records. I'd recommend you watch this training series by Mark Lower for Ancestry Academy.


Searching for My Brick Wall Ancestor in Early US Census Records


This post is focused on applying research strategies to find and evaluate clues for John Townley in the 1830 and 1840 Census.


In the previous post, I found clues for the birthplace of my 4th great-grandfather, John Townley, in Elizabethtown, New Jersey. In an earlier post, I found clues suggesting Effingham Townley as his father's.


We must recognize that John Townley is a common name, which can make finding him difficult. I will follow the tips for researching commonly named ancestors, as I explore the census records.


Searching the 1840 US Census Records


While researching the 1850 - 1880 census records, I found evidence that his third child, Joanna, was born in New Jersey in 1827. His next child, Richard, was born in Ohio in 1837.

Clues from home sources and census records

I should find John in Cincinnati, Hamilton County, Ohio in 1840.


Before searching the census records, I need to develop a hypothesis for the family I expect to find.



On Ancestry.com, I keyed in John Townley, Cincinnati, Ohio, with no other details.


The search returned 22 results from around the country, but only one John Townley in Cincinnati.




Without knowing the individuals' names in the above entry, I can attempt to align what I predicted to this household.

  • Free White Persons - Males - 30 thru 39: 1 ~ John

  • Free White Persons - Females - 30 thru 39: 1 ~ Evaline

  • Free White Persons - Males - 15 thru 19: 1 ~ Asa

  • Free White Persons - Females - 10 thru 14: 2 ~ Eliza? Unknown female?

  • Free White Persons - Males - Under 5: 1 ~Richard

  • Free White Persons - Females - Under 5: 1 ~ Mary Jane

This entry fits my predicted family nicely, but I have a few conflicts. Namely, I have two recorded females and only one name on my predicted chart.


Who are the extra people in the early census records?


When we look at early US census records, we can not definitely identify the individuals in a home. As such, we may encounter 'extra' people in a household or a household is missing individuals it should have, we have to be cautious.


Avoid Assumptions


You can not assume that an extra relative is a child of the head of the household.


As I pointed out in the video Data Mining Your Genealogy, many children are in homes where their surnames don’t match the household. Thus, the extra young person (a female in this case) could be a niece, a cousin, a sister-in-law, a boarder, or a ward of the state. She could be anyone.


The Extra Individual Could Be a ‘Mistake'


Enumerators do make mistakes. The enumerator may have added household information to the wrong line or column.


Respondents can make mistakes. We do not know who spoke with the enumerator. Perhaps the informant lied or misremembered a detail.


Or You Made A Mistake


While filming this video, I made a mistake in the predicted family.


I neglected to include Joanna!


I thought about refilming the video (and fixing the graphic above), but this is a teaching moment. Go slow. Double-check your work. Make sure you're not the cause of your research problems.


As I reviewed the other hints, I don't find a family structure that aligns with John's children according to other documents.


Search for the Same Surname in One Location


Before I can claim the above entry for John Townley pertains to my brick wall ancestor, I need to dig deeper in early census records.


I need to search for all Townleys in Cincinnati. Then I might need to expand my search to Hamilton County and all of Ohio.


Using a wildcard search of:

  • Tow*y

  • Cincinnati, Ohio (Exact Place)

Only THREE Townleys appear in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1840.

  • John Townley

  • Major Townley (corrected indexing error)

  • George Townley

I expanded the search to adjacent counties, a feature really like on Ancestry.


To add more historical context to my search, I visited the Cincinnati, Ohio page on Wikipedia. I love the quick population statistics you can find on on this reference website.


There are over 46,000 persons. If we consider that many of these persons are women or children, the pool of potential adult males with the surname of Townley decreases.


I have concluded that the above Ancestry entry does apply to my ancestor. I also have clues to potential relatives for John Townley. The only question that remains is HOW are they related?


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Searching in the 1830 Census Records for John Townley


On Ancestry, I used the following search terms in the 1830 census database:

  • John Townley

  • Cincinnati, Ohio

No Johns appeared in this collection in Cincinnati.


I changed my search terms to:

  • Tow*y

  • Cincinnati, Ohio (Exact Place)

I only found Nathaniel Townsley, who is the wrong age to be either John's father or John himself.


Considering I expected John to be in New Jersey in 1830, I utilized the clue from his son's internment record to research this census record.


Using search terms:

  • Tow*y

  • Elizabeth, New Jersey

I received 50 results for Townley heads of households in Essex County, New Jersey. I noted the following families in Elizabethtown by name, the total number of individuals in the home, and the age of the likely head of household.

  • Caleb Townley, 5, m 20 thru 29

  • William Townley, 3, m 30 thru 39

  • John Townley, 5, m 20 thru 29

  • William Townley, 3, m 30 thru 39

  • Catherine Townley, 3, f 20 thru 29

  • Joshua Townley, 4, m 70 thru 79

  • Richard Townley, 7, m 30 thru 39

In this location, the John Townley discovered matches what I expected (especially after fixing the error of forgetting his daughter Joanna).


Before I left this census record, I made a note of his neighbors.

  • Isaac Bonnel

  • Abigail Purcel

  • James Werdel

  • John Townley

  • John Van Stone

  • Abraham Van Black

  • Sarah Woodruff

  • Joshua Townley

  • William M Woodruff

I really want to know more about Joshua, aged 70. I'm not going to research him at this time.


The surname Woodruff caught my eye as John's daughter Eliza married a Woodruff in Cincinnati. Did the Woodruffs and John Townley move together? Are they related in any other way?


Searching in the 1830 Census Records for Effingham Townley


Finally, I searched for Effingham Townley in the 1830 census. I only found one.

He lived in Lansing, New York, and is about 30-39.


If only the recorded Effingham lived in New Jersey and was a minimum of 50 years old!


Time to Update the Genealogy Research Plan


Wouldn’t you know it, my brick wall case was not resolved solely by exploring early US census records. I plan to research more records in Cincinnati in hopes of finding more clues to the past.


Before I do that, I must update my research plan with the discoveries I made. You can view the updated research plan below.


VIEW UPDATED RESEARCH PLAN


If you want your own genealogy research plan template, get a copy of my Research Plan Template and print it out or use it online.




Besides neglecting Joanna, what other mistakes did you notice in my research? This is a "Research-Together" experience. We learn by reviewing the research of others and discussing better paths and research strategies. Feel free to let me know your thoughts below, along with the video, or through email.


Additional "Using Early Census Records for Clues " Show Notes


Continue learning about early census records and other resources for your genealogy quest through the following blog posts and videos.


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