Genealogy: The Evolution of the Census

Learn how the census became what it is today, and why it can be so useful for genealogical research.
Table of contents

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Genealogy: The Evolution of the Census

The First in 1790

Genie Jargon

An indentured servant is one who entered into a contract binding himself or herself into the service of another for a specified term, usually in exchange for passage. The number of years could vary; usually it was four to seven years.

Tree Tips

When the census schedules show age brackets such as males 10 to 16, males 16 to 26, and so on, the ages included within the category are actually one year under the next category. For example, males 10 to 16 includes males through age 15; males 16 to 26 includes males through the age of 25.

Marshals were required to list the number of inhabitants within their districts. They were to omit those Indians not taxed (those who did not live within the towns and cities) and list those who were taxed. They listed free persons (including indentured servants) in categories of age and sex. The rest were counted as “all others,” that is, slaves.

Free white males in the 1790 census were listed by two age groups, those of 16 years and upward, and those under that age. The total free white females were listed with no age distinction at all. Only the head of the household was listed by name. John Jackson, who was age 40 and who had a son, age 18; a son, age 12; a wife, age 38; and two daughters, ages 8 and 10, would be listed as two males 16 or over, one male under 16, and three females.

In 1908, the federal government transcribed and printed the 1790 census for all available states: Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Vermont, and the reconstructed census of Virginia. The 1790 census for Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, New Jersey, Tennessee, and Virginia were lost or destroyed. The printed 1790 census is available in most large libraries. A reprint edition by Genealogical Publishing Company in 1952 made the set widely available.

Creatively Using Sparse Information

Let's say you are tracing Jonathan Calavary who was born, according to a Bible record, on 3 March 1783. You find him in census records in 1830, '40, and '50 as head of household. But who is his father? He was only about seven when the 1790 census was taken. He should therefore be listed as a male under 16 in his father's home in 1790. Search the 1790 census for the state for the name Calavary. You may find a family with a male listed as under 16. With that unusual surname, there won't be many and it will be a starting place for the search.

1800 and 1810 Census

The 1800 and 1810 censuses were more expansive. The head of the family was listed; the free white males and free white females were listed by age: under 10, 10 to 16, 16 to 26, 26 to 45, and 45 or older. They also included the number of other free persons in the household (except Indians not taxed), the number of slaves, and the place of residence.

In some early censuses, the lists were copied and rearranged alphabetically by the census taker. This loses the advantage of listing the family with neighbors. However, most often the lists are in the order that the families were contacted by the census taker.

Lineage Lessons

Since only the head of household is actually named in the censuses of 1790 through 1840, it isn't possible to determine with certainty which are family members. Some of the others listed by age may not be part of the immediate family. Another relative or a helper could have been living in the home.

Tree Tips

In 1820 the males listed in the 16-to-18 column are also included in the 16-to-26 column. Keep this in mind when you are figuring the total number of people living in the household.

1820 Census Adds Males 16 to 18

The 1820 census included the same questions as in 1810. It also added a category for males 16 to 18, while retaining the 16-to-26 category. Other questions included the number of those not naturalized; the number engaged in agriculture, commerce, or manufacturing; the number of “colored” persons; and the number of other persons, with the exception of Indians.

1830 and 1840 Censuses Narrow Age

In 1830, the age categories were narrowed, enabling researchers to establish ages with more precision. The categories for males and females were as follows: under 5, 5 to 10, 10 to 15, 15 to 20, 20 to 30, 30 to 40, 40 to 50, 50 to 60, 60 to 70, 70 to 80, 80 to 90, 90 to 100, and over 100. The number of those who were “deaf, dumb, and blind” and the number of aliens were listed. In addition, the number of slaves and free “colored” persons were included by age categories.

Tree Tips

The medical profession was not as advanced as it is today. Even cases of senility, retardation, and misunderstood behavior might be listed as “insane.”

The 1840 census contained the same columns as 1830, with an addition important to genealogical research. A column was added for the ages of military war pensioners (usually for Revolutionary War service). Also added were columns to count those engaged in agriculture; mining; commerce; manufacturing and trade; navigation of the ocean; navigation of canals, lakes, and rivers; learned professions and engineers; number in school; number in family over age of 21 who could not read and write; and the number of “insane.”

The value of knowing the age of pensioners in the 1840 census is immense. The pensioner might have been the soldier, or the widow, or other entitled person. You will find that Mary Conklin at age 97 was living with Mary Montanya in Haverstraw, Rockland County, New York. John Jones of Metal, Franklin County, Pennsylvania, was living at the remarkable age of 110. This listing of pensioners was extracted and published by the federal government in 1841, with a reprint by Southern Book Company in 1954 and subsequent reprints with an added index by the Genealogical Publishing Company.