The 1790 census was the first census taken after the United States became an independent country. These census records may be some of the first records to give information about your early ancestors who lived in the United States.
Locating an ancestor in a 1790 census entry has a few challenges to it, but you can search the 1790 census online for free. Use these tips to conduct a successful search in the 1790 census.
What the 1790 Census Can Tell You about Your Family
The 1790 United States census contains very limited information about individual family members, especially compared to later censuses, but it can tell you:
- The full name of one of your ancestors (the head of household)
- How many adult males were in the ancestor’s household
- How many male children were in the household
- How many females were in the household
- How many slaves and other persons were included in the household
1790 census records lists the names of heads of households, with marks representing the number of people in each category in the household. The full count for your ancestor’s household could include visitors, servants, relatives, and of course, the members of the immediate family.
Some members of the household may have been absent, living abroad or cared for by others when the 1790 census was taken. In that case, they would have been recorded as part of the household in which they lived on the day the census was taken.
Who Counts as the Head of a Household?
The father in a family was normally listed as head of household in the 1790 census, even if an older male (like a grandfather) was present in the home. When the father in a family was deceased, a son would usually be listed rather than the surviving widow. However, some women and widows were listed as the head of household, depending on the circumstances.
Start with a Simple Search
Pick one of your 1790 U.S. ancestors who may have been listed as head of household and head over to FamilySearch.org (or another major genealogy site) to find your family in the 1790 census.
Once there, type in your ancestor’s name, and click Search. You can also try searching with a location to help narrow your results.
What to Do If You Don’t Get Results Right Away
If you didn’t get the results you wanted in your first search, don’t give up! Here are some other things you can try.
Use a different ancestor’s name. Only one ancestor’s name per household was listed in the census. Try searching for another (typically male) name in your family tree.
Use creative spellings. Names may have been misspelled by the census taker or misread by the indexer. Try searching with different variations of your ancestor’s name. For example, the name “Bisby” may have been spelled “Bisbie,” “Bisbee,” “Bisbey,” or “Bisbuy.”
Search with the right location. Verify your ancestors’ location using other records or maps. Be aware that some 1790 census data was lost between 1790 and 1830. Locations with missing information include areas in the present-day states of Delaware, Georgia, New Jersey, North Carolina, Virginia, and Kentucky.
If you are more sure about your ancestor’s location than a name or name spelling, you can try searching the 1790 census by image. On FamilySearch.org, the images of the 1790 census are grouped by state, county, and then specific location.
How to Find the Right Family
If you have a lot of search results from the 1790 census, there are some things you can do to narrow your results.
Look at the original census record. Use the images of handwritten census documents (likely linked in your search results) to get more information about each census entry. Compare household sizes, neighboring families, and other information with what you know about your ancestors. Learn more about how to read a 1790 census form on the FamilySearch blog.
Verify with information from other records. Try collecting more information about your ancestor’s family from town records, land dealings, wills, and local histories. Focus your census search on households that most closely fit your ancestor’s circumstances. (Keep in mind that household counts on the census may include more than just family members.)
Research other families in the area. Try searching the 1790 census for other households that share your ancestor’s surname and live in the same area. It may be possible to link these families using information from other records.
You can also use connected surnames to try and identify your family. For example, if you have an ancestor whose surname is “Jones” and whose maiden name is “Garrick,” finding those two surnames near each other might point to the right record.
Use the 1790 Census to Build Your Family Tree
Although locating ancestors in the 1790 United States census can be a challenge, a census record can provide a valuable puzzle piece in creating a complete picture of your family. For more information on the 1790 census and other United States censuses, check out the following articles on the FamilySearch blog:
Learn about the 1790 U.S. census and your family.
How to read a 1790 census form and its questions.
Legacy Tree Genealogists is a genealogy research firm with expertise in helping people find their ancestors. Founded in 2004, the company provides full-service genealogical research for clients worldwide, helping them discover their roots and personal history through records, narratives, and DNA.
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