United States, Slave Information in Pre-1850 Federal Censuses and Local Tax Lists (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2013. It is an excerpt from their course Research: African American Ancestors  by Michael Hait, CG. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

The federal census listings prior to 1850, as mentioned earlier, only name the head of household, using tick-marks to designate all other residents of a household. In this way they resemble tax lists.

Neither record group provides names or exact ages of slaves, but both count the number of slaves, with varying degrees of specificity. The 1790 federal census, for example, only provides the total number of slaves owned, while the 1840 federal census divides the slaves by gender and into various age groups. Tax lists have just as much variety in the amount of information they provide.

Using these lists—really no more than tallies—you can still judge whether or not a slave owner possibly owned one of your ancestors, if the particular owner indeed owned any slaves within the specific age group of your enslaved ancestor.

Unfortunately, no detailed information is usually provided in these records. If the owner of your enslaved ancestor is identified using other records, the census household as a whole can be viewed, providing the number and age distribution of the slaves in his possession, and even providing possible insight into the plantation itself.

An example of an early census record (this one from 1830) appears below.

1830 U.S. Census

1830 U.S. Census, Cooper County, Missouri, folio 194; digital images, Ancestry.com; citing NARA microfilm publication M19, FHL Film roll 73.


Not often, but occasionally, tax lists would provide the names and ages of slaves owned. The availability of these kinds of records varies by state, county, and year.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course Research: African American Ancestors offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.