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.
How the 1790 census can help you find your family.
How to read a 1790 census form and its questions.
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 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.
Famous People in the 1790 U.S. Census
Some of the era’s most famous names appear in the 1790 U.S. census, including:
- George Washington: First U.S. President and Revolutionary War Leader
- Eli Whitney: Inventor of the Cotton Gin
- Alexander Hamilton: First Secretary of the Treasury
- Thomas Paine: Author of Common Sense and Activist
- Thomas Jefferson: Third U.S. President and Author of the Declaration of Independence
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 Legacy; Genealogy 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.