How Did We Get the First U.S. Census?

1790_US_Census

The United States has faithfully taken a census every 10 years since 1790. You may have used census records to build your family history or heard that they are super useful for genealogists—but do you know how the first U.S. census began?

 

The Need for a Population Count

A mandate to conduct a census regularly is actually included in Article 1, Section 2 of the United States Constitution. According to the Constitution, the purpose of the census was to apportion direct taxes and seats in the U. S. House of Representatives “according to [each state’s] respective numbers.” In order to figure out how many people live in each state, you have to count them!

Conducting the First U.S. Census

The first U.S. census asked for the names of heads of households and counted all other people by age, gender, or status, though a more complete questionnaire including occupations had been proposed by James Madison to Congress.

The 17 marshals of the U.S. judicial districts were given responsibility for counting the population and empowered to appoint as many assistants as necessary to accomplish the task. It is estimated that the marshals oversaw some 650 assistants, who carried out the population count.

John Hancock and Samuel Adams on the 1790 census. Massachusetts was the only state to use printed columns.

Taking the Census by Hand

The census takers were required to provide their own paper for the 1790 census forms, write in the headings themselves, and bind them together, so the size and type of pages varied greatly. (Some were even bound with wallpaper!)

The filled-in handwritten documents were then kept in the Census Office. The legal time period for the population count to be completed was 9 months, though counting the population of South Carolina took 18 months, and Vermont’s count did not take place until 1791, after it was added as a state.

A copy of the completed census (also known as a population schedule) was to be posted in the two most public places in each jurisdiction “for the inspection of all concerned,” and an aggregated copy of each district was to go to the President of the United States.

Results from the 1790 Census

The official population counted in 1790 was 3,929,214, and the cost of taking the census was $44,377.

The official count was considered by both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to be an undercount, as they thought the total should have been greater. If the count was low, it might have been because some inhabitants were opposed to the census for religious reasons or feared it would be used for increased taxation. Boundaries of towns and even counties were also less well-defined in 1790, which posed a challenge for scheduling census takers.

Publication of the 1790 U.S. Census

The completed census schedules for the states were filed in the State Department, but the schedules for some states were lost between 1790 and 1830. The remaining census population schedules were posted in public places to be checked for accuracy, and thus viewable by local populations for a short time. After this, the records were kept and processed by the government.

A summary of results from the 1790 census was given by President George Washington to Congress in 1791. You can actually download this summary from Census.gov—though be warned, it is quite a long read!

At the beginning of the 20th century, there was a rise in the public’s interest in the beginning years of the United States and the first U.S. census. In 1907 and 1908, Congress approved funds to publish the 1790 U.S. census “in response to repeated requests from patriotic societies and persons interested in genealogy, or desirous of studying the early history of the United States.”

The population schedules for Maryland, New Hampshire, and Vermont were published in 1907, while the remaining existing schedules were published the next year when additional funds were approved. Today, censuses are made available to the public 72 years after they are taken, to protect the privacy of living individuals.

Search the 1790 U.S. census for free on FamilySearch.org to find information about your early U.S. ancestors.

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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