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The 1790 census was the first census required by the US government. According to the US Constitution, a regular census was required to determine both governmental seats and tax collection data. United States marshals and their assistants were required to administer census questions to all residents in their areas.
The census was more than just a list of residents. It was specifically created to determine what the military and industrial capabilities of the country were. To that end, it was organized into several categories. Some of the questions answered by the census included:
The accuracy of the 1790 census was important to the government. Therefore, marshals were instructed to get everyone in their districts to answer the questions. If anyone refused, they were charged a $20 fine, which was split between the government, the marshals, and their assistants.
Native American Population - Not all US Residents were counted in the 1790 census. Because the census determined both tax estimates and the number of state representatives in Congress, it was designed to record information on “persons excluding Indians not taxed.” Native Americans, who were not eligible to hold government seats and were generally not taxed, were not accurately recorded in a US census until 1940. However, some earlier censuses did include information about some Native Americans.
Inconsistency of Format - The 1790 census documents are not consistent in appearance because there was not a standard form. Enumerators were allowed to determine the format of information collected, as they were required to copy the data on their own paper. Two copies of the census were posted in public areas within their assigned region or district. Any persons seeing the posted census who could read was expected to check the census for errors.
Records Destroyed in Wartime - The 1790 census covered portions of 17 of today’s US states. Unfortunately, only about 2/3 of that information survived. During the war of 1812, the records for Virginia, Tennessee, New Jersey, Georgia, Kentucky and Delaware were all burned. However, many of them have been reconstructed. For example, the Virginia records were recreated from surviving tax lists and enumerations.
Birth Date Accuracy - When looking for historical information in the 1790 census, it is important to understand that the census was actually taken from August 2, 1790 to March 1, 1792. The original deadline for the census was May 1, 1791, but it had to be extended until March of the following year. Therefore, some people who are listed in the 1790 census may not have actually been born until 1791 or early 1792.
Slave Information - The 1790 census contains a lot of records relating to slaves and slaveholders. It is important to note that slaves are grouped according to owner names and ages. Sometimes birth orders and names of slave family members can be determined by simply comparing tax list data with probate inventories. The 1790 census will, in many cases, list neighbors who might be related to the person or persons of interest. That can help researchers to distinguish one family from another, even if the two families have the same name.
The 1790 census included data from both official states and territories that would become states later. The thirteen states were Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Virginia. Other and districts included territories of future Vermont, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Maine (then part of Massachusetts).
Printed copies of the 1790 census are readily available to researchers. However, printed copies do not always contain all of the information that the originals contain. The original 1790 census schedules are available on microfilm for anyone who wants to do more in-depth research.
If you are researching your family history, census data can be quite valuable to you. If you are trying to trace your roots all the way back to the 1700s, you will need to look at the 1790 census. However, due to the nature of genealogical research, you should actually start with more recent census data and work backwards. Once you find names, birthdays, birthplaces and other data, you can continue your research to earlier time periods, hopefully as far as the 1790 census.
The Bureau of the Census published the surviving records in the early 1900s. The publication consisted of 12 volumes and was called Bureau of the Census, Heads of Families at the First Census of the United States Taken in the Year 1790. It has been reprinted many times over the years and there are copies of it available in almost all research libraries.
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