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(c) Linda Haas Davenport (Updated 2007)
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We family historians are always moving backwards in time. For our census research we begin at the 1930 census and move back to the 1920, then to the 1910, etc. But, to really understand the federal census records and to get the most information and use from them, it's best to start with the 1790 census and move forward in time.
The 1790 census was extremely narrow in scope. Although the new government needed to accurately count the population the average resident was extremely distrustful of governments in general and censuses in particular. Many people had personal memories of their old country government's misuse of censuses. Governments had been known to use a census to assess direct taxes or track people of a particular religious faith. Since a lot of people were unhappy about a census the 1790 census was restricted to a count of the people, enumerated within very broad age groupings.
Under an act that, with minor modifications and extensions, governed census taking through 1840, the law required that every household be visited and that completed census schedules be posted in "two of the most public places within [each jurisdiction], there to remain for the inspection of all concerned" and that "the aggregate amount of each description of persons" for every district be transmitted to the President. This law also directed the U.S. Marshal to "file the original returns of their assistants with the clerks of their respective district courts, who are hereby directed to receive and carefully preserve the same."(1) Although the law doesn't specifically address the number of copies to be made, it seems to me this means there should have been an original and two copies made of the census schedules. One to stay at the district court and two to be publicly posted, with only a summary of the count of persons by category to be forwarded directly to the President.
Prior to the taking of the 1790 Census there was much debate in Congress. Many citizens didn't take kindly to being counted and the compensation for enumerators (census takers) was hotly debated. The Congress needed to spend enough money to attract people to the job but didn't want to spend more than absolutely necessary. The pay was finally set at one dollar for every 300 persons counted in cities and towns containing more than 5,000 people, one dollar for every 150 persons counted in rural areas and one dollar for every 50 person counted in sparsely populated or hard to reach areas. The area's Federal Judge was to determine which category the enumerator was paid under. The enumerator was given a sample of the 1790 census form and was expected to secure his own paper, make his own copies, hand rule each page and pay for ink, quills/pens and any other expenses he incurred.
According to the Census Bureau "The first enumeration began on the first Monday in August 1790", little more than a year after the inauguration of President Washington and shortly before the second session of the first Congress ended. The Members of Congress assigned responsibility for the 1790 census to the marshals of the U.S. Federal Court System. One U.S. Marshall was assigned to each court and he was responsible for hiring the enumerators (assistant Marshals) and overseeing the actual enumeration. In the Territories the Territorial governor was responsible. In 1790 there were 16 Federal Court districts and only 14 states (Vermont entered the Union early in 1791 as the 14th state and Congress passed a special law to allow Vermont to be counted) so the census records for 1790 don't exactly match the state boundaries. Virginia had two Federal Court districts one of which would become Kentucky in 1792. Massachusetts also had two Federal Court Districts one of which would become Maine. The Census for the Southwest Territory (Tennessee) was taken but was only a count of the persons residing in Territory. There is no evidence that a 1790 census was taken for the Northwest Territory but, since the Northwest Territory was involved in fighting Indians at the time it's understandable that the Governor wasn't interested in counting the inhabitants of the territory.
Many printed sources (including the U.S. Archive's 1790-1840 Census Publication) say that the missing 1790-1810 census schedules were burned when the British burned Washington in 1814. Since the law governing the 1790-1810 censuses directed that the original returns be deposited with the U.S. District Court Clerk and "carefully preserved" with only a report of the total persons (by grouping) forwarded to the President, it's very doubtful there were any census schedules in Washington in 1814.
In fact, it wasn't until 1830 that the U.S. Government issued a call to all U.S. District Court clerks to forward the census schedules of the 1790-1820 censuses to Washington. Until just before the 1830 census it was presumed that all of these census records were on file in the U.S. District Court offices. Many of the requested 1790-1820 census records never reached Washington. Whether they were lost on route, or the court clerks didn't preserve them or the court clerks ignored the order to forward the records will probably never be known. Or maybe some of the originals are still hidden in some dusty attic or basement of a district court waiting to be discovered. Those that did reach Washington are microfilmed and are the records we see today.
The 1790 Census Enumeration Date was 2 August 1790 with 9 months allowed to complete the census. That means the first family was recorded on Aug 2, 1790 and the last date of a recording should have been 2 May 1791. The information on the schedules was to be accurate as of 2 Aug 1790 no matter when the family was actually counted. When trying to determine which family is yours keep in mind that no matter the date listed on the top of the schedule the information was as of that 2 Aug 1790 date. If a person had died by the time the enumerator recorded the family but was alive on 2 Aug then that person would be counted. And, if a child was alive when the enumerator counted the family but not yet born by Aug 2nd it would not be counted. Also every person in the household on 2 Aug 1790 was to be counted, whether they were a member of the household or not.
Example of the 1790 census schedule
All of the Census Abstract Forms that I've seen include "County" but only the Pennsylvania schedules are broken down by county. Reportedly the rest of the states are not. The required columns for the 1790 Census schedules: County, City, Page, Head of Household, Free White Males 16 & up including head of family, males under 16. Free White Females including head of family. Slaves. All other free persons.
Categories of 16 and Under - birth year = ca 1774-1790
The census taker counted the number of people in the household in each category and wrote down the number. For example if there were 4 males "16 and over" a "4" would be listed in that column. If there were none the column was left blank or a dash was entered. In the printed transcripts a "0" is entered in any column where there is a blank or a dash. The only person listed by name was the individual considered to be the head of the household.
The head of household listed wasn't always a male. If a woman was listed she was probably a widow. Or the Head of Household might have been an older child if both parents were dead, or if a parent was infirm. The 1790 census gives no clue as to whether the persons residing in the household were family, visitors, boarders or employees. And because of the "3/5" rule for all persons not free (slaves, some Indians) you can't be sure that the census taker (enumerator) didn't try to figure 3/5s of the actual number of slaves in the household.
Found on Microfilm publication # M637 the 1790 census in on 12 rolls and schedules for some states are missing. No schedules are known to exist for Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, New Jersey, Tennessee and Virginia. The 1790 schedules for Virginia, which appears on the microfilm publication T498, were reconstructed from State Censuses.(2)
The surviving and filmed states are: Connecticut, Maine (a part of Massachusetts at the time), Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Vermont.
In 1907-08 the Census Bureau transcribed and printed the 1790 census (Microfilm # T498 - 3 rolls). The transcription also includes the 1840 Census of Pensioners for Revolutionary or Military Services. Now just why the government should decide to add this section from the 1840 census to the 1790 census transcriptions is anyone's guess.
There are multiple printed transcriptions of the 1790 census, some better than others. Don't neglect to check the original schedules microfilm, don't depend on any transcribed printed censuses.
There is on going effort to reproduce the 1790 Census for the missing states by using local county records. If you are researching in one of the missing states check for these reconstructed censuses.
For the 1790 census you should record everyone within a state with your surname. This is difficult with such names as Jones, Smith, Brown, etc., but as there is only one entry for household even these common names should be listed. Use the age groupings to help sort families by searching all of the sources you can find.
When you are actually using the census records for research you move backwards with less information being shown in each census. Use your 1800 census records to try to match families by subtracting 10 years from the ages of the people on the 1800 census records to give you approximate age groupings for this census..
From this 1st census your next research step moves back to the Colonial Records. Use property tax lists, church records, voting lists, etc. as a census replacement.
(1)200 Years of Census Taking: Population and Housing Questions, 1790-1990. Washington, DC: Bureau of the Census, 1989.
(2)Catalogue of 1790-1890 Federal Population Census Data Available Through the Census Microfilm Rental Program; Bureau of the Census, 1992, pg 1
(3)List of the Public Acts of Congress, Contained In volume First; Acts of the first Congress of the United States; Statute II; 1790; March 1, 1790; Chap. II. Pg10-12 ;An Act providing for the enumeration of the Inhabitants of the United States;