Tuesday, November 1, 2011

1790 Federal Census, Part I

Exploring the 1790 Census can be a very frustrating process for family history researchers. Only heads of households were named in the first U.S. Census; additional household members were categorized simply by gender, age, and whether free or slave. If the ancestor you are searching for was a child, a spouse, indentured servant or slave at the time, he or she is counted but not named.  It can make validating that you have found the correct family more difficult.

While family history researchers would appreciate the same amount of information available in later censuses, it’s important to keep in mind why the census came into being in the first place. In Article I, Section 2, the U.S. Constitution directed that a Federal Census be taken every 10 years as a method to determine the number of Representatives allotted each state based on a state’s population (“The Number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand, but each State shall have at Least one Representative …”).

A Steep Learning Curve for Both the Government and the People
Some states had conducted censuses prior to this; however, the U.S. government had no experience in preparing for or conducting a census on a national level. For example, standard, consistent census forms were not furnished by the government; those charged with taking the census provided their own. 

“Indeed, up to and including 1820, the assistant general marshals generally used for the schedules such paper as they happened to have, ruling it, writing in the headings, and binding the sheets together themselves. In some cases merchants’ account paper was used, and now and then the schedules were bound in wall paper.

“As a consequence of requiring marshals to supply their own blanks, the volumes containing the schedules vary in size from 7 inches long, 3 inches wide and ½ inch thick to 21 inches long, 14 inches wide and 6 inches thick. Some of the sheets in these volumes are only 4 inches long, but a few are 3 feet in length, necessitating several folds.”1

The people, also generally unfamiliar “with census taking, imagined that some scheme for increasing taxation was involved, and were inclined to be cautious lest they should reveal too much of their own affairs. There was also enumeration opposition on religious grounds, a count of inhabitants being regarded by many as a cause for divine displeasure. The boundaries of towns and other minor divisions, and even those of counties, were in many cases unknown or not defined at all.”1

The 1790 Census was the original U.S. Census. What was the first U.S. Census that your ancestors were listed in?

Discover your roots and watch the branches of your family tree begin to grow.

For more information on my Family History Research services, visit TheMemoryQuilt.com and click on Family History Research.

1The U.S. Census Bureau website: