History of the US Census


This is a subset of the information at US Census Overview

When the Founding Fathers of the United States convened the Constitutional Convention in 1787, they had no idea that they would, in the course of their deliberations, create incredible opportunities for generations of American family history researchers. While Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution does not directly mention the preservation of vital personal information for future generations, it does instruct the government to conduct a decennial census in an effort to fairly apportion the number of federal representatives from each state, as well as to decide on the amount of direct taxes to be levied. That effort to take stock of the U.S. population every ten years has produced, as a natural by-product, the greatest source of genealogical information available to U.S. researchers.

Because they contain such important information about individuals, families, and communities, U.S. census records are the most frequently used records created by the federal government. Recognizing their value to researchers, the National Archives began to microfilm federal census records in 1941, and with microfilming came the ability to make duplicate copies, then to digitize them. Because of technological developments, federal census records can now be researched via the Internet from a home computer or at the nearest archives or library.

Since 1790, the U.S. government has taken a nationwide population count every ten years. Though never intended for genealogical purposes, the federal censuses are among the most frequently used records for those looking for links with the past. Unique in scope and often surprisingly detailed, the census population schedules created from 1790 to 1930 are among the most used federally created records. Over the course of two centuries, the United States has changed significantly, and so has the census. From the six basic questions asked in the 1790 census, the scope and categories of information have changed and expanded dramatically.

Early censuses were essentially an enumeration of inhabitants, but as the nation grew, so did the need for statistics that would reflect the characteristics of the people and the conditions under which they were living. The logical means for obtaining a clearer picture of the American populace was to solicit more information about individuals. In 1850, the focus of the census was radically broadened. Going far beyond the vague questions previously asked of heads of households, the 1850 census enumerators were instructed to ask various questions about every individual in the household, including their age, sex, color, occupation, and birthplace, along with several other questions. Succeeding enumerations solicited more information; by 1930, census enumerators asked more than thirty questions of every head of household and almost as many questions of everyone else in the residence.

When evaluating any source, it is always wise to consider how, when, and under what conditions the record was made. By understanding some of the difficulties encountered by enumerators, it becomes easier to understand why some individuals cannot be found in the census schedules or their indexes.

From the first enumeration in 1790 to the most recent in 2000, the government has experienced difficulties in gathering precise information for a number of reasons. At least one of the problems experienced in extracting information from individuals for the first census continues to vex officials today: there were and still are many people who simply do not trust the government’s motives. Many citizens have worried that their answers to census questions might be used against them, particularly in regards to taxation, military service, and immigration. Some have simply refused to answer enumerators’ questions; others have lied.

For a better sense of how census takers carried out their duties in a given year, it is useful to imagine the landscape and the modes of travel available in the specific time period. In the earliest census years, travel was obviously more difficult and sometimes very dangerous—conditions that did not improve for decades in the more rural states and territories of the “Wild West.”

To complicate the situation further, a large portion of the young nation’s population lived in small villages and isolated farms that were dispersed over a large area. It was not uncommon for a census enumerator to make a long trip to a remote farm, only to find no one at home. In these instances, he was left to make a decision—whether to try again on another day, or question farm or household help, neighbors, or even young children. The latter appears to have been an option taken by many. In some situations, enumerators probably found it easier to just guess.

But obtaining answers directly from the head of household or an adult in the house was no guarantee of accuracy either. For a number of reasons, ages are always suspect in census records. Many people tend to be secretive about their age; women may have been particularly sensitive about revealing the truth. One woman tracked in the census taken in New York from 1850 to 1880 claimed to have aged only twelve years in the thirty-year period. According to the 1850 and 1860 censuses of Springfield, Illinois, Mary, wife of Abraham Lincoln, aged only seven years in the ten-year period (see the accompanying image). She, or someone reporting for her, claimed that she was twenty-eight in 1850 and only thirty-five in 1860. Dozens of cases have been similarly noted; undoubtedly, some honestly could not remember how old they were. If a person’s age was not exactly known, it was frequently rounded off to the closest decade, making ages reported as thirty, forty, fifty, and so on somewhat suspect. Therefore, unless an age reported in the census can be corroborated with another source, it should not be considered totally reliable.

When questions were answered by someone other than the subject of the inquiry, the likelihood of error increased. A husband or wife might not always know the birthplaces of a spouse’s parents. A child being quizzed might easily be unsure of the birthplaces of his or her parents. Census schedules do not tell us who answered the enumerator’s questions.

An important point to remember is that enumerators simply wrote down the responses given to them. They were not authorized to request any kind of proof, such as birth, marriage, or property ownership records. However, every individual contacted by a government representative was required by law to answer truthfully. Anyone refusing to answer or willfully providing false information was guilty of a misdemeanor and subject to a fine. As early as 1790, offenders were fined twenty dollars, which was split between the marshals’ assistants and the government. But relatively few individuals were hauled into court for refusing to answer or for not answering truthfully. It would have been an impossible task for the government to follow through and to investigate everyone’s answers.

It was not until 1830 that the census office supplied printed questionnaires or “schedules.” The enumerators of the 1790, 1800, 1810, and 1820 censuses returned the results of their canvassing on whatever paper they had. Each also had to post copies of their censuses in two public places in their assigned areas. Presumably, people who could read would see discrepancies or omissions and call them to the attention of officials. Unfortunately few, if any, of these duplicates have survived.

And finally the 1890 census was destroyed in a fire. Only a few thousand names survived.

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© Bobby Daniel