If you are researching your family history, census data can be quite valuable to you. If you are trying to trace your roots all the way back to the 1700s, you will need to look at the 1790 census.
However, due to the nature of genealogical research, you should actually start with more recent census data and work backwards. Once you find names, birthdays, birthplaces and other data, you can continue your research to earlier time periods, hopefully as far as the 1790 census.
The 1790 census was the first census required by the US government. According to the US Constitution, a regular census was required to determine both governmental seats and tax collection data.
United States marshals and their assistants were required to administer census questions to all residents in their areas. The census was more than just a list of residents.
It was specifically created to determine what the military and industrial capabilities of the country were. To that end, it was organized into several categories.
The accuracy of the 1790 census was important to the government. Therefore, marshals were instructed to get everyone in their districts to answer the questions. If anyone refused, they were charged a $20 fine, which was split between the government, the marshals, and their assistants.
1790 Census Facts
1790 Census Population: 3,929,326
1790 Census Duration: 19 months
1790 Census Date: August 2, 1790
1790 Census States: 14 States – The original 13 states, plus Vermont
1790 Census Territories: Northwest and Southwest (tally only)
Approximate number of heads of household: 540,000
Average size of family: 6
Questions Asked in the 1790 Census
No matter when the census taker came, he was to record who was in the house as of August 2, 1790. If a child was born after this date they were not to be counted. If a person died before this date, they were not to be counted. It is very probable the census taker just recorded who was there the day he arrived. Slaves where to be counted as 3/5th of person.
Numbers shown in the categories include all persons who were in the home such family, relatives, friends, employees, visitors, and boarders.
Some of the questions answered by the census included:
Name of the head of the family
Number of free white males 16 years of age and older, including head of family
Number of free white males under 16 years of age
Number of all free white females including head of the family
Age calculated as of August 2, 1790 and does not allow for the 9 month variance.
Free White Males Under 16 (0-15)
Free White Males 16 and over (16+)
1774 and Before
1790 Census Resources
Printed copies of the 1790 census are readily available to researchers. However, printed copies do not always contain all of the information that the originals contain.
The original 1790 census schedules are available on microfilm for anyone who wants to do more in-depth research. The Bureau of the Census published the surviving records in the early 1900s.
The publication consisted of 12 volumes and was called Bureau of the Census, Heads of Families at the First Census of the United States Taken in the Year 1790. It has been reprinted many times over the years and there are copies of it available in almost all research libraries.
You may find the following resources helpful in your research of the 1790 census data.
1790 United States Federal Census database at Ancestry.com details those persons enumerated in the 1790 United States Federal Census. In addition, the names of those listed on the population schedule are linked to the actual images of the 1790 Federal Census, copied from the National Archives and Records Administration microfilm, M637, 12 rolls.
Not all US Residents were counted in the 1790 census. Because the census determined both tax estimates and the number of state representatives in Congress, it was designed to record information on “persons excluding Indians not taxed.”
Native Americans, who were not eligible to hold government seats and were generally not taxed, were not accurately recorded in a US census until 1940. However, some earlier censuses did include information about some Native Americans.
Inconsistency of Format
The 1790 census documents are not consistent in appearance because there was not a standard form. Enumerators were allowed to determine the format of information collected, as they were required to copy the data on their own paper.
Two copies of the census were posted in public areas within their assigned region or district. Any persons seeing the posted census who could read was expected to check the census for errors.
Historical Considerations of the 1790 Census
Records Destroyed in Wartime
The 1790 census covered portions of 17 of today’s US states. Unfortunately, only about 2/3 of that information survived. During the war of 1812, the records for Virginia, Tennessee, New Jersey, Georgia, Kentucky and Delaware were all burned.
However, many of them have been reconstructed. For example, the Virginia records were recreated from surviving tax lists and enumerations.
Birth Date Accuracy
When looking for historical information in the 1790 census, it is important to understand that the census was actually taken from August 2, 1790 to March 1, 1792.
The original deadline for the census was May 1, 1791, but it had to be extended until March of the following year. Therefore, some people who are listed in the 1790 census may not have actually been born until 1791 or early 1792.
The 1790 census contains a lot of records relating to slaves and slaveholders. It is important to note that slaves are grouped according to owner names and ages.
Sometimes birth orders and names of slave family members can be determined by simply comparing tax list data with probate inventories. The 1790 census will, in many cases, list neighbors who might be related to the person or persons of interest.
That can help researchers to distinguish one family from another, even if the two families have the same name.
Interesting facts about the 1790 census
The United States was the first country to call for a regular census. This makes the 1790 census the oldest national census.
1790 census was made public, meaning they were posted publicly so those included on the census could , if they could read, view and catch omissions and errors.
1790 census did not have pre-printed forms for the census takers to record information. Each census taker was given sample copies and expected copy his census return on whatever paper he could find and post it in two public places.
Much of the 1790 census was destroyed in the War of 1812, some states totally, some states partially. Sometimes tax lists are available to help find the names of early residents.
Historical events surrounding the 1790 US Census
March 4, 1791 - Vermont became a state, so the state’s 1790 census was taken on April 4, 1791.
April 17, 1790 - Benjamin Franklin dies.
January 8, 1790 - George Washington, President during census, delivered the the first State of the Union speech.
July 16, 1790 - Washington DC is established as the capital.
February 1, 1790 - Supreme Court convenes for the first time.
Original records for a number of states including Delaware, Georgia, New Jersey, and Virginia were lost in the decades following 1790.
Also, nearly a third of the original census data from all the states has been destroyed. This includes records from Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Vermont.