United States Census Historical Background

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United States  Gotoarrow.png  U.S. Census  Gotoarrow.png  Historical Background


The U.S. Constitution requires a federal census for apportioning the House of Representatives and direct taxes.[1] In accordance, the first federal census was taken in 1790 and has been repeated every ten years, always in a year ending with a zero. President Washington assigned the task of taking the 1790 census to the seventeen United States Marshalls. The first census was taken using existing civil divisions.

As time progressed, more and more questions were asked on the census forms. The early censuses showed the name of the head of house; other family members and slaves were only tallied by sex and age categories. Starting in 1850 each member of a household was named, along with that person's state or nation of birth. Starting in 1880 the birthplace of the father and mother of each individual was also listed. By 1900 questions about immigration to the United States and citizenship were added to the list.

Three copies of most federal censuses were created. The local census taker first created a draft copy as he walked from house to house to question the residents. He later copied by hand a second draft for the state, and a third copy for the federal government. Copying errors often resulted in slight differences between the various copies. Only a few of the local or state copies have survived. Occasionally, large cities were enumerated twice in the same year when an under-count was suspected the first time.

At the same time as the federal population schedules were made, in some census years, additional census schedules were created. In 1820, 1850, 1860, 1870, and 1880 the manufacturers or industries were listed on a separate schedule. In 1840 and 1890 military pensioners, Union veterans, or their widows were listed. In 1850 and 1860 slave owners were listed together with the sex and age category of their slaves. For 1850, 1860, 1870, and 1880 a list of people who died in the 12 months prior to the census was made and called mortality schedules. In 1900 a special American Indian schedule was filed at the end of a county's population schedules. Also look for 1880 "defective, dependent, and delinquent classes" and social statistics federal census schedules.

Sometimes a page or two of a census was lost, or a town or two, or sometimes several counties, or even a census for a whole state or territory went missing. The entire United States 1890 census was destroyed except for 6,190 names. To learn about gaps and missing census records see the "Existing and lost censuses" section of each state's census Wiki page.

The first census indexes were produced in 1901 by the government for the 1790 census. Around 1965


Szucs, Loretto Dennis and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking, ed. The Source, A Guidebook to American Genealogy. (Provo, Utah: Ancestry, 2006).

Sources and Footnotes

  1. Constitution for the United States Article 1, Section 2, "Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons. The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct."