Genealogy Tips: U.S. Census Records, 1790-1840 (Part I)

Introduction: In this article, Katie Rebecca Garner gives tips for using the information found on U.S. Census records from 1790-1840. Katie specializes in U.S. research for family history, enjoys writing and researching, and is developing curricula for teaching children genealogy.

When the United States was created, the founding fathers decided it was necessary to make a count of the population every decade. The first census was taken in 1790, counting white males and females, other free persons, and slaves. For the first six censuses, from 1790 to 1840, the census was taken by marshals from each judicial district. As time went on, information was added to the censuses based on what the federal government thought was important to track.

This additional information meant more work for the census takers, but it also means more valuable information in censuses for modern genealogists. Prior to 1850, censuses only named the heads of household and tick marks were made to represent other household members. While this makes the early censuses harder to use, there is still value to finding your ancestors in them. This article will explore the information tracked in the early censuses.

Photo: printed volume of the 1790 U.S. Census showing summary populations for Virginia counties, on top of form for the 1940 U.S. Census, at the U.S. Census Bureau, by Harris & Ewing, photographers, c. 1940
Photo: printed volume of the 1790 U.S. Census showing summary populations for Virginia counties, on top of form for the 1940 U.S. Census, at the U.S. Census Bureau, by Harris & Ewing, photographers, c. 1940. Credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Census Day

The 1790 to 1820 censuses were enumerated the first Monday of August in their respective years. Beginning in 1830, June 1 was census day. While the early censuses were supposed to be enumerated within nine months, many of them took longer. The enumerators were supposed to record the households as they existed on the official census day, but it is hard to tell how well this instruction was followed.

If an enumerator came more than a year past the census day, how well did the head of household remember who was in the household back then? Births and deaths certainly occurred in some households between the census day and the day the enumerator came. A child born during that interim shouldn’t have been counted but may have been, and a person who died then should have been counted but may not have been. Another risk with lengthy enumerations is the increased risk of families being counted twice or not at all due to their moving. (1)

What Can Be Found in Early Censuses?

The 1790 census counted free white males over and under the age of 16, free white females with no age indicator, other free persons, and slaves. Without any age indicators, it is hard to tell who the tick marks represent. (2)

The 1800 census began tracking ages of free white females and expanded the ages tracked for free white males. The age categories of the 1800 census were: under 10; 10 to 16; 16 to 26; 26 to 45; and 45 and over. There was no age or gender indicator for other free persons or slaves. This means no age or gender categories for African American families, free or enslaved. The 1810 census had the same categories as the 1800 census, both for white and black people. (3)

Note that the War of 1812 occurred between the 1810 and 1820 censuses. Some of the 1810 and earlier census returns were destroyed during the War of 1812. If you can’t find your ancestor in these censuses, tax lists can be used as substitutes.

The 1820 census began tracking ages and genders of slaves and free colored persons, but had different age categories from the free white persons: under 14; 14 to 26; 26 to 45; and 45 and over. The age categories for free white males and females were the same as the previous census except that 16 to 18 was added to males. The 1820 census also took count of foreigners not naturalized. The following occupations were also counted: agriculture; commerce; and manufacturing. There was also a column for other free persons excluding Indians not taxed, which did not have age or gender categories. (4)

The 1830 census had the age categories broken down further than previous censuses. For free white males and females, under 20 was divided into five-year brackets and over 20 was divided by decade up to 100 and over. For slaves and free colored males and females, the age categories were: under 10; 10 to 24; 24 to 36; 36 to 55; 55 to 100; and 100 and over. This census continued to track foreigners not naturalized. Categories for deaf, dumb, and blind were tracked in separate columns for white and colored people.

The 1830 census was the first one that the government provided pre-printed forms. Up until that time, enumerators had to write their own forms. Some enumerators would rewrite their census returns to show the heads of households in alphabetical order. (5)

The 1840 census had the same age, race, and gender categories as the 1830 census. The occupation column tracked the following industries: mining; agriculture; commerce; manufacture; trade; navigation of the ocean; navigation of other waters (canals, lakes, rivers); and learned professional engineers. This census also listed the names and ages of Revolutionary War pensioners. Like the 1830 census, deaf, dumb, and blind were tracked by race. This census also tracked education and illiteracy. (6)

The census instructions specified that enumerators should exclude Indians (Native Americans) not taxed. Therefore, these early censuses may not be helpful for Native American research, unless your Native American ancestors paid taxes. (7)

Any of the early censuses can be used to determine locality for an ancestral family. When tracing a line backward, the early censuses can be used to identify parental candidates. Unless the census taker alphabetized the heads of household, the early censuses can be used to identify neighbors. The censuses provide enough details of the households enumerated to distinguish between heads of household with the same name.

The 1820 and 1830 censuses can be used to find immigrant ancestors, and give clues to naturalization records. The 1840 census is useful for identifying military ancestors who served in the Revolutionary War. As the information collected in the censuses expanded, it became necessary to use two pages instead of one to contain all the information, so be sure to check the next image when viewing the censuses digitally.

Reminder: You can access the U.S. Census records on GenealogyBank.

Note: Part II of this series tomorrow will explore how to use these early census records.



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