It can be difficult in pre-1850 United States census records to know to whom reference is made in various age category tick marks.

Usually the person listed as the head of the household is the oldest male shown in the enumerator’s tick marks. However there are potential exceptions:

  • a widowed female is the head of household and the oldest male is her underaged son or the oldest male is her aged father or father-in-law who may not actually be the actual “functional” head of household but is still living in the household
  • the oldest male is the father or father-in-law of a younger male in the household and that younger male is the actual head of household



2 Responses

  1. Michael,
    Thanks for the 1790-1840 census tip. I have recently been researching one of my ancestral lines in 1800 Somerset County, Maryland found one male 16 thru 44 and one male over 45 in the household which also contained 1 female 26 thru 45 and a total of 11 males and females under the age of 16, whom I believe are the children of the head-of-household and his spouse. While there is no foolproof way to identify which of the two oldest males is the head-of-household your advice helped me to feel comfortable identifying the older male as my direct ancestor.

    • You are welcome. It can be a guessing game to a point. Generally speaking the oldest male is the head of the household, but there are always exceptions. Usually when I’ve had an exception there has been information from other records to back it up.

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