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Understanding the United States Censuses

Dec 01, 2015 07:15AM

The United States has taken censuses every 10 years since 1790. These records provide a cultural snapshot of the local society and culture at those times. To get the most information from the censuses to help you trace your roots, you need to understand what information each enumeration provides.

In the 1790 census, marshals enumerated the original 13 states plus the districts of Kentucky, Maine and Vermont and the Southwest Territory (Tennessee). Each household provided the name of the head of the family and the number of persons in each household who were free white males of 16 years and upward (to assess the country’s industrial and military potential), free white males under 16 years, free white females, all other free persons (by sex and color) and slaves. The U.S. government did not furnish uniform printed schedules until 1830, so in 1790, the marshals submitted their returns in whatever form they found convenient (and sometimes with added information). Column titles are hand-written and sometimes only on the first page.

From 1800 to 1820, the states provided schedules of varying size and typeface. The 1800 schedule of inquiries called for the name of the county, parish, township, town or city where the family resided; the name of the head of the family; the number of free white males and females under 10 years of age, of 10 and under 16, of 16 and under 26, of 26 and under 45, and 45 years and upward; the number of all other free persons (except Indians not taxed); and the number of slaves. With the age and gender guidelines, genealogists are able to narrow birth years down to within 5 or 10 years of the actual date of birth.

The 1810 census inquiries are identical to the 1800 census.

Inquiries for 1820 called for the same age distribution of the free white population as in 1800 and 1810. Additional inquiries include the number of free white males between 16 and 18 years, free colored persons and slaves, respectively, by sex, according to the number under 14 years of age, of 14 and under 26, of 26 and under 45, and of 45 years and upward, with a statement of the number of “all other persons, except Indians not taxed,” the number of foreigners not naturalized, and the number of persons (including slaves) engaged in agriculture, commerce and manufacturing.