How to Read and Download the 1820 U.S. Census Form

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The 1820 U.S. census form was the first census to enumerate free persons of color and enslaved persons into age brackets. It was also the last federal census to be handwritten by local marshals. In 1830, the next census year after 1820, the U.S. census forms were printed and standardized. This article can teach you how to read the 1820 census form, how to download it, and how to find 1820 census records.

How to read the 1820 U.S. Federal Census Form

Census records can be hard to read if you are unfamiliar with them. Since the U.S. census questions changed from time to time and they were handwritten during the early census decades, a few tips can go a long way towards making them understandable.

Look for the Head of Household

Early census records like the 1820 U.S. census only recorded the heads-of-household by name. All other persons were marked as a number or “tick mark” representing the individual by race, sex, and age category. For example, if a “2” was recorded in the column for "Free White males of 10 years but under 16," that means there were 2 White males somewhere between the ages of 10 and 15 years old living in that household on census day. Remember, no other person is named except for the head of household.

Use a Cheat Sheet to Help with Missing Headings

Because the 1820 U.S. census was a handwritten census created by each marshal of a district, individual 1820 census records may look different, depending on where they were created. Generally speaking, the first page of a set of 1820 census records for any given enumeration district included the column headings (age categories and questions) and subsequent pages did not. In some cases, even the first page of the census for a specific area did not include the age category headings (see image below).

If the census record you are looking at doesn't include headings, you can use a “cheat sheet” to help you know which column is which. Even though each marshal was writing the census documents by hand, the columns should still follow the same order. This pdf version of the 1820 census form from the National Archives website is easily downloadable. We've also included a list of the columns in order here:

1820 U.S. Census Questions and Columns


  • Number of free White males and females aged:
    • under 10 years of age
    • of 10 years but under 16 years
    • of 16 years but under 18 years (for males only)
    • of 16 years but under 26 years (for males only)
    • of 16 years but under 26 years (for females)
    • of 26 years but under 45 years
    • 45 years and upward
  • Number of male and female slaves aged:
    • under 14 years of age
    • of 14 years but under 26 years
    • of 26 years but under 45 years
    • 45 years and upwards
  • Number of free colored males and females aged:
    • under 14 years of age
    • of 14 years but under 26 years
    • of 26 years but under 45 years
    • 45 years and upwards
  • Number of foreigners not naturalized
  • Number of persons (including slaves) engaged in agriculture, commerce, and manufactures

Consider That You May Be Looking at a Copy

You may have noticed some of the censuses record the names of heads-of-household in alphabetical order. Enumerators were instructed to make two copies of the 1820 U.S. census and place the copies in a public place in which citizens could view them. On occasion, only these copies exist. When finding a census that has persons listed in alphabetical order, you should be aware you are looking at a copy that could include errors and omissions.

New Questions on the 1820 U.S. Federal Census

Several new questions or categories were added to the 1820 census. They included:

  • A new age category for free White males.
  • Age categories for Free Persons of Color and the enslaved
  • Number of foreigners not naturalized
  • Number of persons engaged in agriculture
  • Number of persons engaged in commerce
  • Number of persons engaged in manufactures
  • A column for the number of all other persons except Indians not taxed.

Beware of the New Age Bracket for Free White Males

In 1820, the census included a new age category for free White males that overlapped with another age category. One column was for free White males aged 16 years, but under 18 years and the second column was for free White Males aged 16 years, but under 26 years. Enumerators were instructed to repeat the number of the 16- to 17-year-old males in the column for 16- to 25-year-old males.

Interpreting these 2 columns correctly is important, since it could mean getting the number of males in the household right! For example, if John Smith had a son who was 16, a son who was 17, and a son that was 19, it would look like this on the census:

Sons aged 16 and 17 were recorded twice; once in the 16- to 18-age category and again in the 16- to 25-age categories. At first glance, it seemed John had 5 young men living in his home, but he really only had 3.

Number of Foreigners Not Naturalized

The 1820 U.S. census was the first federal census to ask a question regarding citizenship or naturalization. The answer to this question on a census record might be especially helpful if you are trying to narrow down the year of immigration for an ancestor. It might also alert you to look for additional records, such as passenger lists or naturalization records.

Occupation and Livelihood

Have you ever wondered what your ancestor’s occupation or trade was? If they were living in the U.S. in 1820, the answer may be found in one of the census columns. The 1820 census form recorded which persons within a household were engaged in the occupations of agriculture, commerce, or manufacture. The numbers in these columns represent the number of persons in the household engaged in one of these specific occupations. In some cases, you might find teens and children included in the count.

All Other Persons Except Indians Not Taxed

The term “Indians not taxed” was another way to identify Native American persons who were not members of any state. In 1820, Native Americans were not considered citizens of the United States and therefore were not subject to taxes. The majority of Native Americans at this time were living within their tribal communities and were not included in the enumeration. However, it is possible that if a Native American woman was married to or living with a free White male or perhaps a family of recent Indian descent was living outside of their tribal affiliation, they could have been enumerated in this population enumeration.

Finding Your Ancestors Using the 1820 Census

Anyone can search for their ancestors, collect records, and build a family tree for free at FamilySearch.org. You can find your ancestors in the 1820 U.S. census by searching for them by name and location here at FamilySearch. Then, add their stories to your family history!

If you don't know enough about your ancestors to search for them by name, try connecting to the shared family tree on FamilySearch. You may find that someone else has already started, and your tree might already have information back to the 1800s.

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August 12, 2022
The 1820 United States census was the fourth federal census of the United States. It was the first census to enumerate Free Persons of Color.

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