The 1790 United States Census

December 8, 2018  - by 

The United States took its first census in 1790, just a year after George Washington was inaugurated as the first president. For such a young nation, the 1790 census was a staggering feat given the country’s lack of experience and limits in printing and transportation. Over the course of 18 months, census takers gathered and recorded data for about 3.9 million people almost entirely by hand.

Were your ancestors among the 3.9 million people counted on this historic census? Find out by searching for their names in the 1790 census on FamilySearch.

Find People in the 1790 Census

How the 1790 census can help you find your family.

Swedish family history and genealogy

How did we get the First Census?

Learn about the origins of the first United States Census.

How to Read a 1790 Census

How to read a 1790 census form and its questions.

1790 census forms and questions

How to Use United States Census Records

Learn how to use census records in your family’s genealogy research.

How to search and use US Census Records
 

Early US History and the 1790 Census
United States History and the 1790 U.S. Census

While the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 declared the United States as an independent nation, it took several years, battles, and political decisions for a new nation to truly be born. The Revolutionary War continued for several years, with the Battle of Yorktown in 1781 sealing the victory for the thirteen American colonies. The British government officially recognized the United States as a separate nation in the 1783 Treaty of Paris.

Over the coming years, the new federal and state governments charted their shared path to the future. Delegates debated and drafted a new Constitution in a Constitutional Convention held in Philadelphia in 1787. The Federalist Papers followed shortly after to promote the new Constitution, which was ratified in 1788 (with the 13th and final state signing it in 1790). With a new government outlined in the Constitution, Revolutionary War hero General George Washington was elected the nation’s first president in 1789.

The Constitution called for a national census to be taken every 10 years. With the new government established, this decennial census began in 1790. Its purpose wa s to allocate seats for each state in the House of Representatives and, at least initially, to calculate each state’s share of the Revolutionary War debt. Today, however, the 1790 census can help you find your ancestors who lived during these fascinating times.

Life in the 1700s and the 1790 Census
Life at the Time of the 1790 U.S. Census (1776–1790)

Most U.S. residents at the time of the first census lived on small farms in the eastern states, with a small number of people running large Southern plantations, migrating west in the Appalachians and Northwest Territories, or living in cities. Only about 4% of the population lived in the United States’ few early cities, with the largest being New York City (population of 33,131), Philadelphia (population of 28,522), Boston (population of 18,320), Charleston (population of 16,359), and Baltimore (population of 13,503).

Everyday life for most people in early America involved hard work. In this early point of U.S. history, most formal occupations were filled by free, white, property-holding men, who earned an average of $259.86 per year and included shoe makers, farmers, shopkeepers, silversmiths, fullers (who cleaned wool), and more. Free, white women most often did their work from home, including tasks such as running a household and supervising servants, raising children, making food and clothing, and many other household chores.

In 1790, about a fifth of United States residents were enslaved, mostly on small farms in southern states. These men, women, and children were compelled to labor in fields, care for livestock, and serve in homes. Some enslaved people worked as semiskilled and skilled craftspeople. In cities and towns, many worked in factories, on docks, and in other businesses.

Daily aspects of life were often practical and simple. Meals were often dependent on the season and climate. Fashions were deliberately simple, compared to those in Europe; residents of this young democracy didn’t want to dress like aristocrats. Commonplace aspects of life today such as news, education, travel, and luxury goods were more easily accessible to city-dwellers.

1700s Famous People and the 1790 Census: George Washington, Eli Whitney, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson
Famous People in the 1790 U.S. Census

Some of the era’s most famous names appear in the 1790 U.S. census, including:

Thomas Jefferson’s entry in the census doesn’t include tally marks for all the individuals in his household, as was normal. Instead, scrawled across a line with his name is his occupation: “Sec of State to the U.S.” The next name under Jefferson’s, Edmund Randolph, also skips the household tally in favor of his job title as the nation’s first Attorney General.

Eli Whitney was only 24 when the 1790 census was taken. Still a student at Yale, he dreamed of becoming a lawyer, but his mechanical aptitude would soon take his career in another direction. Within 4 years, he would patent his famous cotton gin, revolutionizing production and leading to his career as a pioneer in industrial technology.

Do your own ancestors appear among these famous names in the 1790 U.S. census? Search the census here.


Sunny Morton is an award-winning teacher of personal and family history. She is a Contributing Editor for Family Tree Magazine, Editor of Ohio Genealogy News and former Contributing Editor at The Genealogy Gems Podcast. Sunny speaks at events around the United States and has authored Story of My Life: A Workbook for Preserving Your LegacyGenealogy Giants: Comparing the 4 Major Websites and a forthcoming book on finding your family in U.S. church records. She has degrees in history and humanities from Brigham Young University.

Sunny Morton

Sunny Morton teaches personal and family history to worldwide audiences. She's a Contributing Editor at Family Tree Magazine, past Contributing Editor at Lisa Louise Cooke's Genealogy Gems, and the author of How to Find Your Family History in U.S. Church Records (co-authored with Harold Henderson, CG); Story of My Life: A Workbook for Preserving Your Legacy; "Genealogy Giants: Comparing the 4 Major Websites," and hundreds of articles. She has degrees in history and humanities from Brigham Young University. Read her work at sunnymorton.com.

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Comments

  1. The 1790 census record for my ancestor is listed in alphabetic order. This would clearly be a transcript of the original record taken in household order. Is there any chance that this original household order record could have been archived or saved?

    1. I was told at Library of Virginia that the 1790 Census was burned by the British when they visited Washington, DC during War of 1812. I am looking for a John Kramer, might be from PA, who was indenturing his 5 children in Washington, DC (Alexandria, VA portion today) found nothing yet.

  2. Where can I view the census WITHOUT have in go go through FAMILYSEARCH. There should be public recirds not owned by anyone.

      1. NO ONE OWNS THE CENSUS. BEING A MEMBER OF THE FAMILY SEARCH DOES NOT MEAN YOU ARE MORMON EITHER, ANYONE CAN BE A MEMBER. IT IS JUST THAT IT IS EASIER TO FIND MANY SEARCHES THROUGH THE FAMILY SEARCH AS THEY FIND WAYS JUST LIKE ALL THE OTHER SEARCH SITES TO MAKE IT EASIER.

    1. Public records are just that — they are owned by the public. Familysearch doesn’t OWN any of the records they offer — they simply make the records available.
      Now without going through Familysearch or Ancestry or other organizations, I’m not sure if you can access the original microfilm directly.

    2. Deanna Keefer ^ it is not nec. to be a member and Family Search is available without charge. I have found it to be quite useful as they have a great volume of records available.

    3. Ancestry.com is free at most public libraries. You can use Ancestry free, but are not able to download and save documents. Just take a note pad with you to write down the source information and details if you find the information you need until a time when you can afford a Ancestry membership. Most major holidays have a sale on memberships for Ancestry. Hopes this helps answer your question.

  3. This recap of life in 1790 omitted any mention of indentured servants, which was an important segment of the population. Indentured servitude is not the same as slavery, and comprised a significant number of Europeans who came here either because they made the decision to sign up or were in many cases kidnapped, coerced or charged for ‘crimes’ like stealing an apple because they were near starving. Sentence… 7 years indentured servitude in the colonies. I read about several of these in actual historical ship’s logs while poking around in the Boston Public Library many years ago.

  4. Curious to know if that 1/5th of the population who were enslaved were counted in the census? My assumption is, probably not, if the purpose was to allocate seats for the House of Representatives and slaves could not vote.

    1. Slaves were indeed counted. Per the Constitution’s Enumeration Clause which calls for the census, “other persons” were counted as 3/5 of a person for representational purposes. Since it specified free people, including indentured servants, mentioned untaxed “Indians”, and called for the enumeration of slaves, it was understood that “other persons” meant the enslaved people.

    2. Slaves were counted but not on the regular form. There was a slave schedule which listed the number of males and females by age group. Slaves had to be counted because they were included in the count used to determine the number of representatives. From Article I Section 2 of the pre-14th Amendment U.S. Constitution:

      “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.”

      So a salve was counted as 3/5s or a free person.

      This was included because the slave stated feared the north, with its larger population, could legislatively work against southern interests. It was a way of leveling the playing field, much to the damage of the country.

  5. This article prompted me to search for information on the Virginia census records. This search lead me to a web site called Genealogical.com I found some interesting books on Virginia records that could be used as an alternative source of information. i bought the ebook and used this site’s app to read this book on my computer which has a big screen. Unfortunately, when the book opened and I went to the index to look up names of my ancestors there were no page numbers listed at all. All I got was a double page screen. When I tried a single page screen there were no page number references on that screen either. This $47.00 book is now worthless to me. The only means of communication with this site is by email. There is no telephone contact listed at all that I could find. All I can say is beware of sites like these. The books look great but their ebook savy is seriously lacking. Go old school and buy the print copy so you write in the margins and add paper clips.