This article is part of a continuing series looking at each federal census individually. Please read the others in the archives of this column.
The 1850 United States Census was the Seventh Decennial Census. It marks a milestone in using the federal census as a genealogical tool, for it was the first of the decennial censuses to identify the names and ages of every free inhabitant of the United States. Earlier censuses identified only the heads of each household by name, and only counted other inhabitants by inclusion in various age groupings.
The 1850 U. S. Census also marked the first appearance of “Schedule 2—Slave Inhabitants.” This special schedule, which only appeared in 1850 and 1860, recorded information on enslaved individuals, and stood in marked difference to “Schedule 1—Free Inhabitants,” commonly known as the population schedule. The 1850 “slave schedule,” as it is generally known, contains the following columns of information:
Names of Slave Owners: The name of each slave owner is recorded in this column. These names correspond to individuals recorded in the population schedules.
Number of Slaves: This column will generally reflect one of two variations—either the slaves will be numbered consecutively, or each line will report the number “1” for the one slave recorded on that line.
Age: The approximate age of each slave. This is rarely an accurate reporting of the exact age of each slave; the age, especially on large plantations, was often estimated.
Sex: The gender of each slave.
Color: Usually recorded as either “B” for “Black,” or “M” or “Mu” for “Mulatto.”
Fugitives from the State: This column would usually be checked to account for runaway or escaped slaves belonging to each slave owner.
Number Manumitted: This column recorded slaves that had been manumitted, but not actually freed at the time of the census. Manumissions at some later date—for example, at age twenty-five or thirty years—were quite common.
Deaf & dumb, blind, insane, or idiotic: This column recorded slaves physically handicapped in some manner. This information can often be used to identify specific slaves where these handicaps are mentioned in other records.
The 1860 U. S. Census added one further column:
No. of Slave houses: This column records the number of slave houses on the property of each slave owner. In some cases, this will help to identify the existence of multiple families of slaves living on a single plantation, with each family in a separate house. However, it was not uncommon to find multiple slave families living in a single slave house, or to find slaves living in their master’s houses, without separate slave houses.
In studying the information available for each “slave inhabitant” in these records, one glaring omission becomes immediately obvious. Despite recording the age, gender, and race of each slave, the “slave schedule” did not record their names. This creates an overwhelming limit on the usefulness of these records in studying our ancestors.
For example, if you have identified your ancestor in the 1870 census, with her name and age, and the names and ages of her children born prior to 1860, you may attempt to locate this family in the slave schedule. However, even if the suspected slave owner of this family indeed owns slaves of the appropriate ages and genders, there is no way to confirm that the unnamed individuals in the slave schedule are the same individuals you are researching. This is not to say that these records do not have any usefulness. At best, this information might constitute indirect evidence that these were the same people, but there is no direct evidence to be found in these records.
The best ways to use these records would be as evidence that a specific individual indeed owned slaves of a certain approximate age/gender combination. As demonstrated in the case study concerning Jefferson Clark of Leon County, Texas, as serialized in this column, this evidence can play a major role in eliminating or qualifying men as potential slave owners of your enslaved ancestors, when no direct evidence exists to provide this information.