When it comes to counting American citizens, we’ve come a long way in the last 220 years. To help enumerate an estimated 310 million residents in the 2010 census (see page 25), the Census Bureau expects nearly 3.8 million applicants—almost equal to the total US population in the first census in 1790—for 1.4 million temporary jobs. Back in 1790, 650 federal marshals did the job over a span of 18 months, traveling house to house, unannounced, at a cost of $44,000. The marshals used sheets of paper or notebooks they designed themselves (the first centrally produced and printed forms wouldn’t be introduced until 1830). That inaugural count of 3.9 million Americans covered 13 states plus the districts of Maine, Vermont, Kentucky and the Southwest Territory (Tennessee).
Genealogists have Article 1, Section 2 of the US Constitution, adopted in 1787, to thank for one of the most valuable tools for tracing American ancestors: “The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct.” Given the tardiness with which many states got around to keeping vital statistics, the census is sometimes not only the best but the only official clue for birth dates and places of residence.
• free white males age 16 and older, including the head of household (to assess the fledgling country’s industrial and military potential)
• free white males under 16
• free white females of any age, all lumped together
• all other free persons (recorded by sex and color)
Take Charles Seale’s simple 1790 census return from Camden District, SC, for example: 1-2-2-0-0. Although I can’t magically turn those numbers into names, I can match what I’ve learned from other sources about my fifth-great-grandfather’s family to confirm I’ve got the right census listing and figure out who each mark
1800 and 1810
The next two censuses, which used identical questionnaires, broke down the ages of household members in greater detail. For both free white males and free white females, these censuses counted those under age 10, 10 and under 16, 16 and under 26, 26 and under 45, and age 45 and up, as well as other free persons and slaves.
1830 and 1840
1850 and 1860
This was also the first census to inquire whether the household had a “radio set.” In another sign of the times, the standard population schedule was supplemented by a special “Census of Unemployment” (unfortunately, officials destroyed these schedules after collecting the data). There was also a short supplemental Indian schedule in 1930.
- Head of household only: 1790, 1800, 1810, 1820, 1830, 1840
- Everyone in the household: from 1850 on (except for slaves)
Birth date and place
- Age range of free white males (ranges differ): 1790, 1800, 1810, 1820, 1830, 1840
- Age range of free white females (ranges differ): 1800, 1810, 1820, 1830, 1840
- Age of everyone in the household: 1850 on
- Birthplace: 1850 on
- Born within the census year (with month): 1870, 1880
- Month and year of birth: 1900
- Foreign-born parents: 1870
- Parents’ place of birth: 1880 on
- mother tongue: 1910
- Self and parents’ mother tongue: 1920, 1930
- Married within the census year: 1850, 1860, 1870 (includes the month), 1880, 1890
- Marital status: 1880 on
- Number of years married: 1900, 1910
- Age at first marriage: 1930
Immigration and citizenship
- Number of aliens/persons not naturalized: 1820, 1830, 1840
- Year of immigration to US: 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930
- Number of years in the United States: 1890, 1900
- Naturalization status: 1890, 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930
- Number of free colored: 1820, 1830, 1840
- Relationship to head of household: 1880 on
- Veteran status: 1890, 1910 (Civil War only), 1930
- Mother of how many children/number living: 1890, 1900, 1910
Census Search Dos and Don’ts
- experiment with the site’s search tools, entering different search parameters and spellings.
- look for search tips to see whether you can use tools such as wildcard symbols or Boolean searching to catch mistranscriptions and unexpected spellings.
- try searching without a name—enter other information such as the person’s place of residence, birth date and immigration date.
- search for friends and neighbors your ancestor may have been living with.
- expect to find an ancestor on the first try.assume the site’s data match everything you understand to be true about your family. Names may be spelled differently, for example, or people may have reported different ages or immigration dates from what you’ve found in other sources.
- assume it’s your ancestor because the name is right. Multiple people could’ve had the same name.
From the March 2010 Family Tree Magazine