The 1840 US Census

Cover page of an enumeration district in the 1840 US census

The 1840 United States census was the 6th U.S. federal census. It covered 27 states, the District of Columbia, and the territories of Florida, Iowa, Oregon, and Wisconsin. Prior to 1850, U.S. federal censuses only recorded the names of the heads-of-household. Everyone else appeared as a “tick mark” in the appropriate age, sex, and race columns. Even though this census has those tick marks for everyone but the head-of-household, you will find a wealth of information can be extracted. This census was the first census to ask questions about school attendance, literacy, and vocation. It also has one special question not found on any other census. Do you know what it was? The answer can be found later in this article.
 

You can find your ancestors listed on the 1840 U.S. census schedule by entering your ancestor’s name below.
 

What can I learn about my ancestors in the 1840 U.S. federal census?

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The 1840 U.S. Census asked the following questions:
 

1. Name of head of household

2. Number of free White males in each of the age categories and number of free White females in each age category.

  • under 5 years
  • 5 to 10 years
  • 10 to 15 years
  • 15 to 20 years
  • 20 to 30 years
  • 30 to 40 years
  • 40 to 50 years
  • 50 to 60 years
  • 60 to 70 years
  • 70 to 80 years
  • 80 to 90 years
  • 90 to 100 years
  • 100 years and upward
1840 census page 1 header.jpg

3. Number of male enslaved persons and number of female enslaved persons in each age category. These age brackets were broader than those of the white persons enumerated.

  • under 10 years
  • 10 to 24 years
  • 24 to 36 years
  • 36 to 55 years
  • 55 to 100 years
  • 100 years and upward

4. Number of male free persons of color and number of female free persons of color in each age category. These age brackets again were broader than those of the white persons enumerated.

  • under 10 years
  • 10 to 24 years
  • 24 to 36 years
  • 36 to 55 years
  • 55 to 100 years
  • 100 years and upward

5. The number of persons in each family that were employed in mining; agriculture; commerce; manufacture and trade; navigation of the ocean; navigation of canals, lakes, and rivers; and learned professional engineers. This question was answered by the number of family members participating in each of these specific professions.
6. The name and age of pensioners for Revolutionary or military service

7. Number of White persons who were deaf and dumb in the following age categories:

  • under 14 years
  • 14 and under 25 years
  • 25 years and upward

8. Number of White persons who were blind
9. Number of White persons who were insane/idiots (at public and private charge)

10. Number of Colored persons who were deaf, dumb and blind (no age categories)

11. Number of Colored persons who were insane/idiots (no age categories)

12. Number of White persons age 20 years and older who could not read and write.
 

One Special Question Unique to the 1840 U.S. Census

Did you notice the unique question from the list above? In the 1840 U.S. census, anyone who had served in the Revolutionary War or other military service had their name and age recorded. This was particularly special if the head-of-household was not the service person. In those cases, you had a second family member (or resident) named and their age instead of an age category. If you find an ancestor listed as a veteran in this census, it will give you a calculated birth year and you will be alerted to find more information regarding their military service.

Many people miss the Revolutionary and military service question and the questions regarding occupation and schooling. That’s because the 1840 U.S. census is a 2-page document. The first page of the census document contains only the names of heads-of-household and the age categories for free White and free Colored persons.
 

The second page contains information regarding enslaved persons, health conditions, military service, occupation, and education questions.

1840 census pages with highlight of Revolutionary War pension information

To be sure you see both pages, you will have to click the right arrow to advance the page view.
 

What was happening in the U.S. leading up to the 1840 U.S. census?

Interpreting data you have extracted from the 1840 U.S. census will mean more to you if you understand a little about the social history and context of the 1830s in America. There was an uptake in immigrants arriving to America in the 1830s. Some 600,000 immigrants entered the United States in this decade preceding the 1840 U.S. census. Many of these immigrants landed on the east coast but later moved west as land was prevalent. This westward expansion settled parts of the mid-western and western United States.

As the white settlers poured into the lands already occupied by Native Peoples, a Sauk warrior named Black Hawk rose up. He and his people did not want to leave their land in Illinois. Though at one point he tried to surrender to U.S. soldiers and Illinois’ militia men, a tragic accident caused a war to ensue. The Black Hawk War began on 5 April 1832 and lasted until August 2nd of the same year. The losses were significant for the Natives and Black Hawk was captured and jailed.

In 1830, the Indian Removal Act gave the federal government power to exchange Native-held land for land in the west. This new Indian territory was in present-day Oklahoma. A quick look at the timeline for the removal of the southeastern Native American tribes looks like this:

  • 1831 – Choctaw Nation was removed
  • 1832 – Seminole Nation removed
  • 1834 - 1836 – Creek Nation was removed
  • 1837 – Chickasaw Nation was removed
  • 1838 – Cherokee forcibly removed (Sometimes referred to as The Trail of Tears) 

In 1837, a great economic crisis hit the United States. Referred to as the Panic of 1837, this financial decline resulted in a depression which lasted until the mid-1840s. For a time, westward expansion slowed and approximately ten percent of workers in the United States were unemployed at any given time. It was a dark moment for many of our ancestors.

How do I find my ancestors in the 1840 U.S. census?

At FamilySearch, you can search for your ancestors in the 1840 U.S. census by signing into your free FamilySearch account and going directly to the 1840 U.S. census collection.

You can navigate to the 1840 U.S. census collection by clicking on Search at the top of the page and choose “Records” from the pull-down options. At the next screen, near the bottom left, you will see a search field to search by collection name. In this field, type in “United States Census, 1840.”

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Search for your ancestor by first and last name, as well as their birthplace and date. Click the More Options to narrow down your search. Search by Residence where your ancestor would have been living in 1840. Now, click the orange “Search” button. Review the results and if you find your ancestor in this census, don’t forget to attach the record to your family tree.

This census may hold clues for research into further record sets such as military pension files, Freedmen’s Bureau record collections, school records, and more!

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