Early Censuses - 1790-1840

That is fifty years of Federal censuses that provide the rich resources of information found in the census done beginning in 1850 and beyond. Yet, there is still a good deal to learn from those censuses.

The first one done in August 1790 is great to go over, hopefully, you had ancestors living in the new United States then. The census marshals were assigned to visit every household with a list of questions. The only name written down on the form was the head of the household (male or female). The ward or district and date of the enumeration was also included but most of the information is based on tally marks to questions.

There is the number of free white males broken into age brackets. Same for the number of females. There was a tally (a number) for the total slaves in the household.

What you can do is compare that information with the next census in 1800 and 1810 to see any changes. Those two additional censuses had the same type of questions as 1790. An example would be the number or lack of slaves. Keep in mind many people in the north also held slaves in the early years.

A change in 1820 asked about foreigners and other aliens to be identified. It was labeled tally of foreigners not naturalized. Another addition was the tally of people (including slaves) who worked in agriculture, those in commerce and those in manufacturing. That would give you much more insight into your ancestors in 1820. Another interesting item was the tally (number) of ‘free colored persons’ in a household broken down in males and females and different age groups. This would be important in a count of free colored persons in their own household and not part of a white household.

With the census of 1830, the columns and marks were much clearer and easier to read. Also, the age group for children was not as broad as it had been earlier. There were those under age 5, those aged 5 to 10 years, those 10 to 15 years, etc. Another was a tally by different ages for whites, separate one for slaves and colored persons, who were deaf and dumb, those blind and those listed as aliens, and foreigners not naturalized.

The sixth census was on June 1, 1840. When completed and compared to the 1830 census there was a 33% increase in population, including slaves in that total. New questions for 1840 included people who were classified as ‘insane’ or ‘idiotic’. The number of people in a household also blind, deaf and dumb was still counted. Also the number of American Revolutionary veterans and the number in a household in school. You can see with the addition of questions the next step was adding all names in a household by 1850.

Go to sources for viewing these early censuses such as FamilySearch.org (free) and Ancestry.org (fee-based).

Photos: Symbol of Census; Census takers 1820; Census taker in 1840 and African-Americans counted in 1840.

Related FamilyTree.com Blogs:

Why Your Ancestor Might not Be on the Census

The Time between 1880 and 1900 Census

A Common Error on the Census

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