The 1820 US Census

Image from 1820 US census of Farmington, New York.

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 and the enslaved in age brackets.
The scheduled 6-month completion time frame was extended by about 7 months to September 1, 1821. The official enumeration day of the 1820 census was August 7th, 1820, and all questions refer to that date.

You can find your ancestors listed on the 1820 U.S. census schedule by entering your ancestor’s name below.

What was the unique question asked in the 1820 census and how does it affect your family tree?

There was a very unique question added to the 1820 U.S. census. It appeared in only this census and never popped up again. It was an addition to the age bracket for the white males. Let’s take a closer look.

The age categories were the same as the 1810 U.S. Census, except for the addition of a 16–18 years category for males.

Screen capture of special questions asked in the 1820 US census.

The number of free White males age categories were:

  • under 10 years of age
  • of 10 years but under 16 years
  • of 16 years but under 18 years (for males)
  • of 16 years but under 26 years (for males)
  • of 16 years but under 26 years (for females)
  • of 26 years but under 45 years
  • 45 years and upward

Did you notice 2 age brackets overlap? If a family had 1 tick mark in the 16 years but under 18 years age bracket and another tick mark in the 16 years but under 26 years, it might mean there are 2 young men in the home, one that is 17 years old and another that is 25. However, it could also mean the family has one 17-year-old white male that was recorded in both age brackets. To discern how many males are in the family, you should consult other records.

The 1820 U.S. Census asked each household how many persons in their home fit into each of the following age and race brackets:

  • The 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 only)
    • of 26 years but under 45 years
    • 45 years and upward
  • The 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
  • The 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
Image of a page from the 1820 US census in Lexington, Kentucky.

What was happening in the U.S. leading up to the 1820 U.S. census?

Between the years of 1810 and 1820, the U.S. and her citizens endured much. At the start of this decade, Britain and France were in a conflict we call the Napoleonic Wars. During this conflict, each country was trying to control the seaways. You might say the United States was caught in the crossfire. Britain used their control to board American ships to search for British citizens they felt should be serving the Crown. This practice was referred to as impressment. Among other things, impressment was a contributing factor to the United States declaring war on Britain on June 18th, 1812.

Over the next 2 years, several battles ensued. Some may be familiar to you like the Battle of Horseshoe Bend and the Battle of New Orleans. Your ancestors may have participated in the War of 1812. The pension records for the veterans and widows of this war are readily available and hold a wealth of information.

The War of 1812 ended on December 24th, 1814, with the signing of the Treaty of Ghent. Unfortunately, communication of this treaty did not arrive in the United States until February 1815 and by this time, the Battle of New Orleans had already been fought after the treaty was signed but before news of it arrived.

In 1815, the U.S. federal government sold nearly 1 million acres of newly acquired land. With the War of 1812 over the government had a great amount of debt. They sold much of their land on credit because many could not afford to purchase the land outright. When the economy took a nosedive in 1819, The Bank of the United States and other banks began recalling those loans. This led to the Panic of 1819 and many farmers in the mid-west lost everything and unemployment was high.

Painting of a section of the Eire Canal in New York.

In 1817, the construction of the Erie Canal began. It started in New York state and connected the Hudson River with Lake Erie. This amazing inland water route provided the means for thousands to settle the interior of the United States.

How do I find my ancestors in the 1820 U.S. census?

Though the 1820 U.S. census enumerated 6 new states, Louisiana, Indiana, Mississippi, Illinois, Alabama, and Maine, there were also some records lost. A district wide loss for the 1820 U.S. census for Arkansas Territory, Missouri Territory, and New Jersey is something family history researchers should be aware of. When there is significant loss of a federal census in a particular area, researchers can turn to state censuses, city censuses, tax rolls, and voter registrations to place their ancestor in a certain place.

At FamilySearch, you can search for your ancestors in the 1820 U.S. census by signing in to your free FamilySearch account and going directly to the 1820 U.S. census collection.


1820 US census search page.JPG

Once signed in to FamilySearch, click on Search, and from the pull-down menu choose Records. At the next screen, near the bottom left, you will see a search field to search by collection name. In the field, type this in: United States Census, 1820

Search for your ancestor by first and last name, as well as the residence. To open up additional search fields, click More Options. To make that distinction, look under the heading “Add Life Event,” and then click or tap Residence. Put the county and the state where you believe your ancestor was living in the residence field. You can also narrow down your results by adding a birthplace and approximate birth year. Now, at the bottom, click the yellow Search button.

1820 US census search page advanced options.jpg

If you find your ancestor in the 1820 U.S. census, you can attach it to your FamilySearch family tree. Adding records to your family tree is a way to cite your sources and help others in their family history research.


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