The U.S. censuses are one of the foundations of a person’s genealogical research. They provide a lot of great and easy-to-understand information. But beware of the phantom male showing up in many 1820 families! You might be on a wild goose chase for a person that never existed!
Many years ago, I was hired to find the “missing son” from the 1820 U.S. census. The client explained the targeted head-of-household had “x” many males in his home in 1820, but further research found there was one less son than expected. Where did the “other son” disappear to? The answer was…there was never an extra son.
The Male Age Brackets Changed in the 1820 U.S. Census
The age brackets for white males were the same as they had been in the 1810 census, except for one addition. The 1810 census had the following age brackets for the free white males; Under 10, 10-15, 16-25, 26-44, and 45 & over.
And the 1820 census had these; Under 10, 10 to under 16, 16 to 18, 16 to under 26, 26 to under 45, and 45 and over.
Notice, the 1820 options for free white males include “of 16 years to 18 years” and “of 16 years but under 26 years.” You might be asking yourself, “So, does that mean if the family had a male in their home who was age 16, 17, or 18 that a tally mark would appear in BOTH columns?” The answer is yes. And that is why some researchers may suspect an extra male in the family that simply doesn’t exist. I call him the phantom male.
The instructions given to the Marshal and his assistants for these age brackets reads [added bold type for emphasis]: “It will be necessary to remember, that the numbers in the columns of free white males between 16 and 18—foreigners not naturalized—persons engaged in agriculture persons engaged in commerce persons engaged in manufactures must not be added to the general aggregates, of which the sum total is to be opposed. All the persons included within these columns must necessarily be included also in one of the other columns. Those, for instance, between 16 and 18, will all be repeated in the column of those between 16 and 26. The foreigners not naturalized, and those engaged in the three principal walks of life, will also be included in the columns embracing their respective ages.” 
An Example of the Phantom Male in the 1820 U.S. Census
Picture it. This is the family of James Donnelly of Newburgh, Orange county, New York. At first glance, it looks like he has 5 males living in his home, including himself. One under 10, one between 16 and 18, two between 16 and 26, and one between 26 and 44.
However, if the instructions were followed, the male who is marked in the 16-18 bracket is also one of the two marked in the 16-25 age bracket. James has only four males in his home including himself. There is one male under 10, one male between 16 and 18, one male between 19 and 25, and one male between 26 and 44.
Without recognizing this one small change to the age brackets in the 1820 census, many have been on a wild goose chase searching for an “extra son” or at least an extra male. Have you been chasing after a phantom male in the 1820 U.S. census? Well search no more…he doesn’t exist!
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Robert Givens says
Very interesting. I had never caught this. What was the motivation to even create the 16-18 column? They wanted this for some reason – men out available to work but not yet “adults?” Looking for potential draftees? Who knows.
Jane Hammonds says
A librarian suggested to me that it was an indication of males close to “draft” age. In case of a military conflict, the government would have an idea of where to find their additional troops.
Walker Hall says
The real question is this: If you’re going to have a 16-18 column, why would you intentionally “throw away” information PLUS confuse everthing, by have a 16-25 column instead of a 19-25 column. That was an absolutely boneheaded decision.
Barbara Saunders says
Maybe they wanted to locate potential soldiers before those men married and could claim family support obligations.
Love this, Pattie! Had noticed this but never that to identify him as Phantom Male!
It’s also important to remember that even if there were an unknown extra minor in the house (not within this duel age bracket or specifically on the 1820 census), it isn’t necessarily a child of the head of the household. Could be a nephew/niece, cousin, younger sibling, apprentice, etc. and that could be why they are only with the family on that one census. This is why on pre-1850 censuses, I try not to over analyze extra data.
Amie Bowser Tennant says
Exactly! However, I enjoy over analyzing every record to make sure I get the very most out of it! Thanks for reading!
Nancy H. Vest says
Thank you for writing about this.
Thanks wondered what was going on .. We can not find the Rairden family in the1820 gallia ohio and 1830 either. It is driving me crazy. Looking for William Rarden/Rardin is impossible there are 4 of them but none match family. He existed, married Celia Amanda Blackburn abt 1847 son John Woodruff, Harvey Curtis, Hannah, Mary Elizabeth , and more Found him in Later census but no parents. and same for His brother Felix, and John it is frustrating. Have checked neighboring states HELP