The U.S. Census: History, Timeline, and Purpose

For many U.S. citizens, the census is just a survey they answer once every ten years. But most don’t stop to think about its actual purpose.

A census is a key tool for governments, useful for efficient economic planning and creating relevant social policies. It’s also publicly available data, meaning anyone can use it. And it can even benefit you – as you will see in a moment.

Photo: this 1940 Census publicity photo shows a census worker (left) collecting information from a respondent (right) in Fairbanks, Alaska. The dog musher (center, background) remains out of earshot to maintain confidentiality.
Photo: this 1940 Census publicity photo shows a census worker (left) collecting information from a respondent (right) in Fairbanks, Alaska. The dog musher (center, background) remains out of earshot to maintain confidentiality. Credit: Dwight Hammack, U.S. Bureau of the Census; FDR Presidential Library; Wikimedia Commons.

So why is the U.S. census important? And what was the original purpose of the census in our nation’s history?

Let’s start our discussion with a definition.

What Is the U.S. Census?

The U.S. census is the process of gathering information about the U.S. population. It primarily measures the country’s total population, plus additional demographic data such as race and immigration status.

Aside from U.S. citizens, the census also includes illegal immigrants, long-term visitors, and other non-citizens. As long as a person stays and sleeps in a location long-term (called the “usual residence”), they’re counted in the census. Overseas Americans are not included in the census, except federal employees or members of the U.S. military.

The official census day has been April 1 since 1930. But throughout the census history, this hasn’t always been the case. Initially, from 1790 to 1820, it was conducted on the first Monday in August. The day moved to June 1 in 1830, April 15 in 1910, and finally to April 1 in 1930.

What Was the Original Purpose of the U.S. Census?

Historically, censuses were a way to count the population for taxation purposes. It was also to facilitate conscripting citizens into the military. As for the original purpose of U.S. census, it was to determine the correct number of delegates to the House of Representatives for each state.

Over the years, the U.S. census has expanded to collect additional data, such as race and density status. This gave the census much more utility as a government tool. For instance, it allows the federal government to determine how to allocate funding to each state.

A Census Timeline

The U.S. census history is a long one. Censuses were around even before the U.S. Constitution was ratified on 21 June 1788. Before that date, an informal census was regularly conducted in Virginia to identify the population of the British colonies.

When Was the Census Created?

The first official census of the United States was in 1790. It was conducted by U.S. marshals and their team of enumerators, long before the U.S. Census Bureau was established in 1903. Because self-identification wasn’t yet a thing back then, marshals relied on local enumerators who knew the neighborhood well.

The 1790 results counted a population of 3,929,326, most of it coming from Virginia. And because slavery wasn’t abolished yet, enslaved people were also counted separately in the census (694,280 in total).

The 1790 census listed only the head of each household, plus a count of the remaining members. This lasted for the next six censuses. Then, beginning in the 1850 census, all persons in every household were named.

Who Was the First Census Director?

As the population of the U.S. grew, so did the complexity of conducting the census. This led to establishing an informal census office that handled the technical aspects. This officially started the U.S. Census Bureau history, as its precursor agency.

Its first leader was William Augustus Weaver, appointed by Secretary of State John Forsythe as the official “superintending technical aspects of the census.”

In 1903, the census office was officially set up as a separate agency, called the U.S. Census Bureau. The first agency director in U.S. census history was the census superintendent at the time, William Rush Merriam.

What Can a Census Tell You about Your Ancestors?

Now that you know “what is a census in history?” you’ll be glad to know that you can also benefit from it. And one of the key ways is through genealogy.

Census records can tell you a great deal about your ancestors. For instance, demographic information might inform you when your ancestors first immigrated to the United States. You can also determine their occupation, marriage status, and home address. Some censuses even record agricultural schedules, giving you insights into how your ancestors lived during those times.

The best thing is that this wealth of information is freely available. For example, you can easily search digital census records online through the National Archives Catalog. Or, if you want to do it the traditional way, you can visit the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C., or any of its regional offices in key cities.

Search GenealogyBank Census Records

The complete U.S. Census Records are part of the content offered on GenealogyBank. Our collection starts with the very first census of 1790.

Census Records Are a Good Start – Newspapers Tell You More of Your Ancestors’ Stories

Of course, the census can only give you so much information. Newspaper archives, obituaries, and even Civil War pension lists can add richer detail to your research. And you can find all of these and more in GenealogyBank.

With over 13,000 newspapers, 260+ million obituaries, and access to U.S. census records, we offer a convenient place to conduct all your genealogy research. Visit us and explore your ancestry today.

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