About the 1850 U.S. Census | City Directory coloured persons of Boston | Inquiry Unlimited

A Demographic Study of Beacon Hill

Mission: Using the 1850 Census


Ellen and William Craft at Lewis Hayden's House

How to Read the 1850 Census


Researched and compiled by Marjorie Duby (Copyright © 2008)


What can we learn about a section of Boston in 1850 by using the census ( transcription )?

Lesson Plan Title: How to Read and Interpret the 1850 U.S. Census MA Suffolk Boston Ward 6 page 402


Grade Level:  5


Lesson Concept/Topic to Teach: Transcribing and Analyzing Facts from Census Information


Overall Unit Objectives


Topic: 1850s Fugitive Slaves in the Boston Area; Reconstructing a profile of Lewis Hayden, Ellen and William Craft using primary source documents


Thinking skills:


Curriculum Frameworks (Standards) Addressed:


Lesson Objectives:


Classroom materials needed for Session 1:


  1. Create a transparency – A transcribed copy of the 1850 U.S. Census MA Suffolk Boston Ward 6 page 402
  2. Photocopy a class set of – A transcribed copy of 1850 U.S. Census MA Suffolk Boston Ward 6 page 402
  3. Photocopy a class set of - “1850 U.S. Census MA Suffolk Boston Ward 6 page 402”
  4. Create a transparency - “1850 U.S. Census MA Suffolk Boston Ward 6 page 402”
  5. Magnifying glasses
  6. Pencils


Teacher preparation needed prior to Session 1:


  1. Become familiar with the census as a primary source document particularly “About the 1850 U.S. Census”
  2. Prepare analysis questions similar to those mentioned in “Gathering Facts: Analyzing the Document” for use in interpreting this census document in a classroom discussion
  3. Become familiar with deciphering handwriting of the 1800s
  4. Review historical background information: Fugitive Slave Act of 1793; Personal Liberty Laws; Compromise of 1850: Fugitive Slave Act


Detailed description of student activities with instructions to teachers:


  1. Explain to your students that for this classroom activity, we are to be historians attempting to gather information about 1850 and the people and times in which they lived by analyzing one page of the 1850 U.S. Census


  1. Group the class in pairs for collaboration.
  2. Pass out the multiple copies of the transcribed copy of 1850 U.S. Census MA Suffolk Boston Ward 6 page 402, Dwellings 859-862
  3. Assist the class members in an oral interpretation of the document to determine what they know about this document. (Information in rows and columns; manipulation of the facts to compare, infer, draw conclusions)


  1. Pass out the multiple copies of the original “1850 U.S. Census MA Suffolk Boston Ward 6 page 402” that you photocopied, giving one copy to each pair of students.
  2. Direct the attention of the class members to the original copy.  Tell the class that this page is an actual copy of the information gathered by a census taker in Boston in 1850.
  3. Explain that the information gatherer used cursive handwriting and that the handwriting is not always clear, that abbreviations and spelling differed from current script.
  4. Model how to read a family entry, directing the students to follow along with: Sample 1:  Line 9 – Dan Blaisdell – Dwelling 859 – Family number 1233 – 56 years old – M – Trader – born in N.H.

      Sample 2:  Line 10 – Mary “ – means repeat the word above so it is Blaisdell

      Sample 3:  Line 11 – David Blaisdell – 17 – M – Clerk – Mass.

      Sample 4:  Line 18 – S.H. Flint – 30 – M – black – Boarding House – N.J.

  1. Using “Gathering facts: analyzing the document”, create a classroom practical use of the document
  1. Focus on lines 27-39 – the dwelling of Lewis Hayden – Explain that in future lessons we will focus on Lewis Hayden’s involvement in 1850s Boston history through historical documents. In our next lesson, we will begin creating a profile of William and Ellen Craft, two tenants currently living in his boarding house.
  2. Display the pictures of Lewis Hayden and of the Crafts.

Citations for the selected documents of this overall unit:


  1. 1850 U.S. Census MA Suffolk Boston Ward 6, Page 402, NARA, Northeast Region, Roll M432_336 accessed 31 July 2008.
  2. 1850 U.S. Slave Schedules, Georgia Bibb Macon, Robert Collins, ancestry.com accessed 31 July 2008.
  3. 1850 Boston City Directory, William Craft, footnote.com accessed 30 July 2008.
  4. Craft, William. Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom; or, the Escape of William and Ellen Craft from Slavery. London: William Tweedie, 1860. (Includes a portrait of Ellen Craft and William Craft)
  5. Lewis Hayden photograph, The Boston Athenaeum

Suggestions for evaluating this activity:


Instruct the class members to act as enumerators and to create an original census listing using their family’s information or that of neighbors and friends adapted to life in 1850

Last modified: February 24, 2017.