Saturday, March 23, 2019

Sarah Kirk Emerges: Using Pre-1850 US Census Enumerations to Locate A Missing Daughter

Thomas and Sarah (Bonar) Kirk, my fifth great-grandparents, had a daughter named Sarah. 

That much we know is true, but, beyond her existence, Sarah is largely a mystery. 

She disappeared from the record trail. No one knows if she married, stayed singled, died young, or migrated westward like many of her siblings who left their native Ohio.

What is known, as I wrote last week (see Searching for Sarah), is that she existed and that she was alive - unmarried - in 1848 when she sold 16.5 acres that she inherited from her father's estate.

Last week, I followed the trail of a Sarah Kirk who was enumerated with a months-old child in the household of the Stottlemyer family in an Ohio county just across the dirt road from where Thomas Kirk farmed. Apparently she was single. There was no husband enumerated with her in the household. 

Could this Sarah Kirk possibly be Thomas' daughter unmarried and with a newborn? I thought maybe yes until I found another Sarah Kirk closer to home.

Another Sarah Kirk Enumerated in 1850

In 1850, Thomas Kirk's son James Kirk was enumerated with his wife, Kezia, and their young children (aged 11, 9, 7, 5, and 4). Also enumerated in the household - after the five young children - was a 20-year-old Sarah Kirk.

1850 US Federal Census: Jersey Township, Licking County, Ohio

Who was this 20-year-old Sarah Kirk? Could this woman, who was born in 1830, be the daughter of Thomas and Sarah (Bonar) Kirk?

Initially, I was skeptical that Sarah (Bonar) Kirk, born in 1784, gave birth to a child in 1830 when she was 46 years old.

However, I now believe that this did in fact happen, and that the young woman living with James Kirk in 1850 was in fact his sister and Thomas' daughter Sarah Kirk.

Here’s how I came to that conclusion.

We Know Thomas Kirk Had a Daughter Named Sarah

Thomas and Sarah (Bonar) Kirk had four daughters:

  • Jane Kirk
  • Rachel Kirk
  • Anna Kirk
  • Sarah Kirk

We know these women were their daughters because, after Thomas died in December 1846, each of his surviving heirs inherited an equal portion of his farm in Monroe Township, Licking County, Ohio.

Beginning in 1848, a quitclaim was finalized with a single buyer by the name of William Gossage. The agreement stipulated that all of Thomas’ children – legal heirs to his estate – would convey their inherited portion of the farm (16.5 acres each) in a series of endorsed land transfers to Gossage. The quitclaim essentially required all the living children (heirs) to be put on the record.

The existence of Sarah Kirk, the long-rumored daughter, was confirmed in an endorsed land transfer dated May 15, 1848. Siblings Sarah and James each sold their 16.5-acre plot together in this same land transaction. This land transfer revealed that Sarah Kirk was using her maiden name and presumably unmarried in 1848.

Two years later, when a 20-year-old Sarah Kirk showed up in James’ household on the 1850 census, it was eyebrow-raising because he had been paired with his sister Sarah in the quitclaim land transaction.

But was the Sarah who lived with James in 1850 his sister who sold land with him in 1848?

Finding Sarah - Thomas Kirk's Daughter - in 1850

After reviewing the 1850 census, it was clear that this Sarah Kirk was not one of James and Kezia’s children. This Sarah was born four years before their 1834 marriage. This Sarah was at least nine years older than the eldest child, a daughter. In fact, the eldest child was an 11-year-old girl by the name of Sarah Kirk. I’m going to go out on a limb here and speculate that they didn’t have two daughters named Sarah. Furthermore, the 20-year-old Sarah Kirk was enumerated last - after the children - suggesting that she was separate in some unarticulated way from the immediate family.

To answer the question of relationship, I relied on the age of the 20-year-old Sarah Kirk and turned to the pre-1850 census records for Thomas Kirk’s family.

Before 1850, the US Federal census only enumerated the head of household by name (Thomas Kirk, in this case) and included hash marks for everyone else living in the home. The marks corresponded to the appropriate sex and age range.

Through a process of elimination, could I determine whether Thomas had a female living in his home who was born in 1830 thus matching the age of the Sarah Kirk living with James? Yes, is the short answer.

Using Pre-1850 Censuses to Surface Sarah Kirk

For this exercise, I relied on the age of Thomas’ four daughters provided in the 1850 census. My assumption was that these ages were likely to be more accurate than ages that would appear later in life and on tombstones.

In 1850, Thomas’ three other daughters were aged as follows:

  • Jane (Kirk) Tracey: 34 years old
  • Rachel Kirk: 31 years old
  • Anna (Kirk) Rhodes: 25 years old

The earliest surviving Ohio census is for the year 1820. In Thomas’ 1820 household (excepting his wife Sarah Bonar), there were:

  • Two females under the age of 10

Subtracting 30 years from the 1850-enumerated ages of Thomas' daughters, it’s possible that these were Jane Kirk (four years old in 1820) and Rachel Kirk (one year old in 1820).

1820 US Federal Census: Licking Township, Licking County, Ohio

In Thomas’ 1830 household (excepting his wife Sarah Bonar), there was:

  • One female under the age of 5
  • One female aged 5-9
  • Two females aged 10-14

Subtracting 20 years from the 1850-enumerated ages, it’s possible that these were Anna Kirk (five years old in 1830), Jane Kirk (fourteen years old in 1830), and Rachel Kirk (eleven years old in 1830). Could the female under five years old be the Sarah Kirk born in 1830, perhaps just months old when the census was enumerated?

1830 US Federal Census: Licking Township, Licking County, Ohio

In Thomas’ 1840 household (excepting his second wife Anna Bailey), there were:

  • Two females aged 10-14
  • One female aged 15-19
  • One female aged 20-29

Subtracting ten years from the 1850-enumerated ages, it’s possible that these were Rachel Kirk (twenty-one years old in 1840) and Anna Kirk (fifteen years old in 1840). In 1840, Jane Kirk was enumerated living with her husband Lloyd Tracey. So who were the two females aged 10-14? Anna Bailey, Thomas' second wife, had a daughter, Lavina, from her first marriage. In 1840, Lavina was eleven years old – a perfect match.

That left one more female aged 10-14 to account for in Thomas’ 1840 household. If Sarah Kirk was born in 1830, she would be ten years old in 1840 – making her another perfect match.

1840 US Federal Census: Monroe Township, Licking County, Ohio

All told, the pre-1850 census records matched perfectly with Thomas Kirk’s known daughters and affirmed the likelihood that the Sarah Kirk born in 1830 - and living with James in 1850 - was in fact Thomas and Sarah (Bonar) Kirk’s daughter.

What became of Sarah Kirk remains a question.

She clearly had a difficult life as the youngest child in Thomas Kirk's household. Her mother, Sarah Bonar, passed away when she was about five years old, and then her father, Thomas, passed away when she was sixteen years old.

It seems likely that her brother James Kirk, who was the administrator of Thomas' estate, was her guardian. That would explain why she appeared with him on the 1848 land transaction and 1850 census.

James probably received some kind of remuneration from Thomas' estate for this caretaking, but, of course, those details went up in smoke when the Licking County courthouse burned in 1875 destroying Thomas' probate file.

Dueling Sarah Kirks in 1850

One more thought before this story comes to a close.

Mindful of the disappearance of Sarah Kirk after 1850, I can't help but wonder if the Sarah Kirk who lived with her brother in Licking County in 1850 was the same Sarah Kirk who was enumerated in the Stotttlemyer household in neighboring Delaware County in 1850.

The enumeration of James Kirk's 1850 household occurred on August 8, 1850.

The enumeration of the Stottlemyer's 1850 household occurred nearly a month later on September 2, 1850.

Did Sarah move away to give birth out of wedlock and spare her family shame? It would help if I could find some way to link the Stottlemyers to the Kirks, but I haven't yet found any connections.

To be sure, there are differences between the two Sarahs. It looks like the Sarah Kirk living with the Stottlemyers was 26 years old and her baby was three-months old (am I reading those ages correctly?). But ages can be given or written wrong, right? 

For now, this is where the Sarah Kirk story rests until a new clue emerges and shines light on her story's end.


  1. Great post, Michael. I love what you did with the pre-1850 census, especially the colorful graphics. Sounds good to me. I hope we don't have to wait to long for you to find a new clue.

    1. Thank you, Cathy. Those pre-1850 censuses are tough enough, so I thought color-coding would help the research click. Here's hoping clues emerge. A family can't just disappear, right?

    2. I'm an analyst so the number "speak" to me. For people who are intimidated by the pre-1850 census, this example with the colored icons should help them overcome their fear (or whatever) of these helpful sources.

  2. I am convinced by your analysis, Michael. I also think the two Sarahs in 1850 could be the same person. I have seen too many people listed twice on a census enumeration to think it's not possible. But I see the second Sarah's age as 24, not 26. But that information could have been given by someone in the household who was guessing her age. Have you tried to search for Henry?

    1. I'm glad I was able to persuade you, Amy! :) I have made some attempts at following Henry, but the name was quite common - I'm finding - and I don't have enough to anchor *my* Henry to the many other leads I'm landing on. It'll happen, I hope.