A Closer Look at the 1850 Census Data

Note 19 of the annotated Mormon essay Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo refers to “a sample from the IPUMS-USA database (Ruggles et al. 2010)”. This article takes a closer look at the sample.

The purpose of this article is not to reach scholarly conclusions about the sociology or demographics of marriage in 1850. Rather, it seeks to provide background information to one of the questions that is most often asked regarding Joseph Smith's polygamy: how common was it for women of the ages of Joseph Smith's plural wives to be married to a man of Joseph Smith's age?

The sample was drawn from the 1850 US census. To get as much relevant data as possible, only women of the ages of Joseph Smith’s wives were selected, and only from Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin (the East North Central Division of the census).

The entire sample consists of 6,324 women. For 3,475 of these, the age of their spouse at the time of the census is known. For the purposes of this article, and the article Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo, women whose spouse’s age is not included in the sample will be considered unmarried. This probably overestimates the number of unmarried women because missing data might be just that.

However, marital status as such is not available as a variable in the 1850 census.as found in the IPUMS-USA database. The variable “married in the previous year” is available but also leads to an overestimation of the number of unmarried women (Compton 2010).


Below is a snapshot of all the data in the sample. The first column contains the ages of the women in the sample (selected to match the ages of Joseph Smith’s plural wives). The first row contains the ages of their spouses at the time of the census. The individual cells refer to the number of women in the sample.

The highlighted cell, for instance, means that the sample contains 46 women who were 30 years old (first colum) whose husbands were 35 years old at the time of the census (first row). Click on the image to enlarge or create your own sample at IPUMS-USA.

Early Marriage

Teenage marriage  was not common in this 1850 census sample. Only 9.6% of the teenage girls were married (186 out of 1,928), mostly the 17- and 19-year-olds (157 of 186; Joseph Smith married no polygamous wives of 15 or 18 years old, so these ages are not included in the sample):

Of the six women aged 14 years, five married within their own age group. The older women married men who were mostly five to ten years older. Marriage to still older men was very rare (five out of 165 husbands):

Age gaps

A similar observation can be made of Joseph Smith's older wives. Of the 301 married older women in the sample, for instance, only two had husbands in Joseph Smith’s age group. The average age gap (positive or negative) in this group is 4.81 years, while the average gap between Joseph Smith and his older wives is 16.48 years:

The average age gap (positive or negative) between the women in this census sample and their husbands is 5.62 years. The gap is highest between 16 year old women and their husbands (9.43 years) and steadily declines after that. As illustrated by the chart below, the age gaps between Joseph Smith and his plural wives were generally much larger:

The table below summarizes the age gaps in the various cross sections of the census. In general, the age gaps between Joseph Smith and his wives were two to three times higher than was customary in 1850 Ohio and Illinois: