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Census Records
How to read them and what you can learn from them

Delaware Census records begin in 1800 and can be found for each successive decade following (e.g. 1810, 1820...). There is no census for DE for the years 1790 or 1890. They did not survive. There was a Delaware census/tax assessment list for 1782 which lists a limited number of individuals in Delaware, but can still be quite useful.

The Census records from 1800-1840 list only the head of household (HOH) and each person in that household is marked by their age. In order to successfully read a census record, you will need to know what ages each column covers. Below are the 1800 census record for John Ferriss of Pencader Hundred, New Castle County, DE (p. 236) and the 1810 census record for a John Feris of Mill Creek Hundred, New Castle County, DE (p. 227).

1800                                                           1            2               3             4            5                6                 7            8            9            10               11        12
Notice "Ferriss" was written as "Ferrifs". When two "S's" were in a name, the first "s" was written like an "f".

1810                                                           1            2               3         4            5               6               7               8             9            10            11            12
[Note: the image is slightly crooked. The numbers at the bottom of the page are the totals for each column]

I have labeled each column in the census with a number (1-12). Each number indicates how many of a certain age are in John's household.
Note: only the 1800 & 1810 Censuses have 12 columns. 1820 has an extra column for 16-17 year old males (13 columns) and the 1830-1840 Census have even more.

Below is an 1820 Census for John Ferriss of Mill Creek Hundred, New Castle County, DE (p.133).
                                                                                    1         2            3            4            5            6            7         8            9         10         11         12            13

Key for 1800 & 1810 Censuses                                 Key for 1820 Census                                                              
Columns 1 - 5 are males                                                Columns 1-6 are males
Columns 6-10 are females                                             Columns 7-11 are females
Columns 11 & 12 are servants/slaves                             Columns 12-13 are servants/slaves

1 = males 0-9 years of age                                             1 = males 0-9 years of age
2 = males 10-15 years of age                                         2 = males 10-15 years of age
3 = males 16-25 years of age                                         3 = males 16-17 years of age
4 = males 26-44 years of age                                         4 = males 18-25 years of age
5 = males 45+ years of age                                            5 = males 26-44 years of age
6 = females 0-9                                                             6 = males 45+
7 = females 10-15                                                         7 = females 0-9
8 = females 16-25                                                         8 = females 10-15
9 = females 26-44                                                         9 = females 16-25
10 = females 45+                                                         10 = females 26-44
                                                                                    11 = females 45+

What can we learn from these?
If we look again at John's 1800 census (above), we can conclude that there were 3 males 10-15, 3 males 16-25, 1 male 45+, 4 females 16-25 and 1 female 45+.
Now, it's not always the case that the oldest person in a household was the head of household, but it is more often the case than not.
It looks like John was the 45+ male, his wife was probably the 45+ female and they had 10 likely children in their household, all under 25 yrs of age. The census record is not proof of this however.
There is no proof that the 45+ female is married to the 45+ male.
There is no proof that any of the children are John's children...or children of the supposed wife.
The enumerator (the person that goes to each home and takes down the information) is not always to be trusted with the information he recorded. People do make mistakes.
The enumerator asks someone at the house (and not always the head of household) about what information he was recording. Does the husband always know his wife's age, did any of them lie? Who knows.

I like to use the census records as a guide to aide me in where to search next. I'm not saying that all census records are unreliable, but I just tend to take the information I find there with a grain of salt. If someone's age on the census is 10-15 in 1820, I won't rule out a person who is listed as 27 years old in 1850 as being the same person. As you look at census records more and more, you may find certain people got significantly younger with each successive census. In my research, this tends to occur more often with women than with men.

This this the same guy?
If you look at all three censuses, you may notice that they belong to different people, and not just because they are from two different hundreds in New Castle County or because of the spelling of the surname. Even though it's possible John Ferriss could've moved from Pencader to Mill Creek, the ages don't add up at all. The Pencader John Ferriss of 1800 is much younger than the 1810 John Ferriss of Mill Creek. If John was 45+ in 1800, it is likely not the same John who was 26-44 in 1810.

The Mill Creek John from 1810-1820 could very well have been the same person. Let's look at it in another way.

1810                                                        1820
2 males 0-9                                                3 males 10-15    [Two of the 0-9 yr olds from 1810 who couldn't have been older than 5 in 1810, and one 10 yr old possibly born after the census of 1810]
1 male 16-25                                             1 male 45+         [The 26-44 yr old from 1810, meaning he was at least 35 in 1810 and born by 1775]
1 male 26-44                                             1 female 16-25   [The 0-9 yr old from 1810, meaning she was at least 6 yrs old in 1810 and born by 1804]
1 female 0-9                                              1 female 45+      [One of the 26-44 yr old females from 1810, the other one likely left the household or died]
2 females 26-44

The 16-25 year old male from 1810 likely left the household and may have married between 1810 and 1820. A good time period to look for a marriage record. It's also a good time to look for a deed since he left the household and may have bought land to share with his new wife.

When you look at one census record, you have a wide range of birthdates for each individual. When you look at two or more, you can narrow it down considerably.
Let's look at the 2 males 0-9 (1810) and the 3 males 10-15 (1820). Looking at the 1810 census alone, you would conclude the 2 males were born between 1801 and 1810. That's a total of 9 years when they could've been born. If you look at the 1820 census you'll see that since there was no column marked for a 16-17 yr old or an 18-25 yr old, the oldest they could've been was 15. If we subtract 10 years from 15, the oldest they could've been in 1810 was 5. Now we have a range of 0-5 in 1810 rather than 0-9. We've knocked off 4 years. Now these 2 males were born between 1805-1810. The 3rd male in 1820 was likely born in 1810, but after the census was taken.

Let's say you only saw the 1820 census. You see the oldest make is 45+ years old. If you then see the 1810 census, you'll see he was 26-44 in 1810. Now, subtract 10 years from 45+ and you'll get 35+. You know he had to have been between 35 and 44 years old in 1810.

The 26-44 age range is the most annoying for me. It covers almost 20 years unlike the other columns. With this age range, a person can fit into the same column for two consecutive census years.

When you add the information gathered from census records to the information you get from deeds, wills & probates or tax assessment records, you can learn more, especially when there was more than one person with the same first name and surname.