Sometimes you can tell a lot about a family from a single census record. These are key records for anyone doing family history research and are readily available on (which requires a subscription) or (which is free).

Take this 1850 census of the Jacob Farlow family as an example.

Jacob was born in Pennsylvania (column 9), but his wife Sarah was born in Ohio, as were their first four children. So Jacob must have moved west to Ohio about 1840, met and married Sarah, and had their first child in 1842, since Elizabeth is 8 (column 4) in 1850. He might have gone to Ohio earlier (and that’s something we might find by looking at the birth places of his own siblings), but people didn’t lollygag about getting hitched in those days.

They then had John, George, and Samuel, the youngest of whom is 3 and so was born in 1847 (or 1846, if his birthday came after the day of the census). But their next child was born in Indiana. You don’t travel for weeks in a covered wagon with a newborn infant, and you don’t travel in or close to winter, since you’ll need to cut trees and build a log cabin when you get to your new homestead. So they probably waited until spring of 1848 or 1849 to go west to Indiana.

Baby Hannah was four months old at the time of the census–November of 1850–so she was born about July. That means Sarah would have been heavily pregnant that spring–another poor choice for wagon travel.

So the Farlows probably came to Indiana in either the spring/summer of 1848 or 1849 after having met and started a family in Ohio about 1840. It’s a classic American pioneer story in a single document.

A few notes about census records:

  • Most census records recorded the occupation of adults. Some asked how many children a woman had had and how many were living. Some recorded information about people who were mentally ill or handicapped.
  • The census enumerators were not very careful about spelling. Then often wrote names however they sounded to them; and the problem is doubled by the fact the digital transcriber working today may have had a hard time puzzling out the enumerator’s handwriting. Don’t expect a different spelling from the one you know means anything.
  • The lady of the household was usually the one talking to the enumerator (often indicated with a mark next to her name). Their age should not be taken too literally on these or most other documents, especially second marriage license applications. They knew their children’s ages but were often cagey about their own (especially on second or third marriage registrations). Generally, the earlier the document, the more likely the age is to be correct.
  • Dates of immigration are also only generally reliable; people seem to have often simply forgotten what year they came to America.
  • Before 1850, only the head of household’s name was recorded. Other members of the household were just counted in columns by age.
  • The 1890 census was almost totally destroyed by a fire in the records warehouse in the early 1921.
  • Census records are held back for 72 years; the 1950 census will be made public in April of 2022.