The history of census population schedules

According to the introduction of the Heads of Families at the First Census Of The United States Taken in the Year 1790, Records Of The State Enumerations: 1782 To 1785 VIRGINIA,

            The First Census act was passed at the second session 
            of the First Congress, and was signed by President 
            Washington on March 1, 1790.  The task of making the 
            first enumeration of inhabitants was placed upon the 
            President.  Under this law the marshals of the several 
            judicial districts were required to ascertain the number 
            of inhabitants within their respective districts, omitting 
            Indians not taxed, and distinguishing free person (including 
            those bound to service for a term of years) from all other; 
            the sex and color of free persons; and the number of free 
            makes 16 years of age and over. . . The schedules which these 
            officials prepared consist of lists of names of heads of 
            families; each name appears in a stub, or first column, which 
            is followed by five columns, giving details of the family.  
            These columns are headed as follows:
            Free white males of 16 years and upward, including 
             heads of families.
            Free white males under 16 years.
            Free white females, including heads of families.
            All other free persons.
            Slaves 1  

The type and amount of information collected changes quickly from 1782 to 1790. Prior to the first official census the state of Virginia conducted its own census in 1782, 1783, 1784, and 1785. The introduction of the Heads of Families at the First Census. . . explains that the First and Second census schedules for Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, New Jersey, Tennessee, and Virginia were "destroyed when the British burned the Capitol at Washington during the War of 1812." A tremendous effort was made to reconstruct the information based on the state census taken earlier from 1782 to 1785. Some examples follow.

This record registered the number of "white souls" from Amelia County in 1785 in Virginia. "White souls" is a column used in this census record along with "dwellings" and "other buildings." No slaves are recorded and no explanation of why is given in the introduction of the Heads of Families at the First Census. . .. A record from 1782 only tracks white and black inhabitants of the Isle of Wight County in Virginia. Note that White males and females are listed by first and last name yet the Black males are only listed by their first name.

The census is rich in social commentary. Margo J. Anderson provides an excellent review of census history in her book The American Census: A Social History. Her work discusses many issues but in particular highlights the recording of Black Americans against the backdrop of federal census records management. How the census was initially designed and the changes that have taken place over the years, reveals much about the American psyche to the social historian. The issue of race and how minorities should be included and recorded has been a source of great debate since the first full-scale census in 1790. Government records that involved Black Americans in particular show the early origins of America's obsession with race. Knowing that the early census history of this country began by counting U.S. citizens for the purpose of determining taxation and congressional representation, it is sobering to see slave census schedules. Since slaves were property and not free citizens, how should their existence be reflected in the census? The founding fathers debated whether taxation could be determined by the size of the plantation and the numbers of slaves owned.

           First, measuring wealth was not easy. . . Further, and 
           more crucially, how did one evaluate property in slaves?  
           Southern states did not count their slaves for legislative 
           apportionment, but to exclude slaves from apportionments 
           for taxes would necessarily give the slave-holding states 
           an undue advantage.  Thus the delegates revived an expedient 
           method proposed in 1783 as a replacement for the ineffective 
           Article 8 of the Confederation:  slaves would be counted 
           as three-fifths of a free person.  Population, which everyone 
           admitted was more easily measured and was highly correlated 
           with wealth in any case, thus became the apportionment base 
           for both representation and taxation.  James Madison and 
           Alexander Hamilton readily admitted in the Federalist Papers 
           that this apportionment rule had "imperfections." They conceded 
           that the numeric calculation of a slave as three-fifths 
           of a free person was clearly arbitrary;  they also admitted 
           that no cogent theoretical justification existed for including 
           slaves in the legislative apportionment base.  Nevertheless, 
           they argued that although the "reasoning" defending the rule 
           "may appear to be a little strained in some points," overall 
           "it is evidently the least objectionable among the practicable 
           rules."  In short, some rule had to be found.  An imperfect 
           rule on which everyone might compromise was better than no rule. 2

Since the issue involved money and the presence of slaves meant wealth for southern citizens, politicians inadvertently began the system of tracking the majority of American Black ancestry. Leaving a trail of historical information for future generations was certainly not a major nor minor consideration in the discussion of why and how to conduct a census. Slave schedules do not contain key information such as the names of the individuals, but the age, sex, and color of the slaves were recorded under the master's name. As frustrating as this kind of information is for Black genealogists, it may prove helpful to those individuals who do know the names of masters or locations of plantations with regard to relatives. This is an excerpt of an 1850 slave schedule for Morgan County in Georgia. At the top of the page it reads "Schedule 2.--Slave Inhabitants in the 62 District in the County of Morgan Goergia, enumerated by me, on the 25 day of Sept, 1850." Note that the slave owner's name, Thomas Hollis, is recorded on line #1 and slaves number 14 and 15 are listed as boys who are five years old and one month old. The columns are difficult to read but are 1)Names of Slave Owners, 2)Number of slaves, 3)age, 4)sex, 5)colour, 6)fugitives from the State, 7)Number manumitted, and 8) deaf & dumb, blind, insane, or idiotic. I have not yet ascertained whether this particular Thomas Hollis was a former slave owner of any of my family members but include the record as an example.

Key developments in the time line of census history identify dates of government records that help record Black American history. The first census of the United States was conducted in 1790. By 1850 the individual becomes a unit of enumeration rather than the family which is significant in genealogy research. 3 Family historians are able to identify individual family members rather than just the male/female head of household. By 1860 American Indians are enumerated as a separate group and in 1870 freed Blacks are identified by name and data begins to be collected on the Japanese. 4 Note that freed Blacks do appear in the First Census. This is an excerpt from the 1790 North Carolina census. These federal records are accessible through the National Archives and its eleven regional archival centers.

The following is excerpted from a public relations brochure produced by the National Archives and Records Administration:

        Population Censuses
        A census of the population has been taken every 10 years since 1790.  
        The National Archives has the 1790-1870 schedules, a microfilm copy 
        of the 1880 schedules, the surviving fragments of the 1890 schedules, 
        and a microfilm copy of the 1900, 1910, and 1920 schedules.  
        (Practically all of the 1890 census schedules were destroyed by fire 
        in 1921...)
        The 1790-1840 schedules give the names of the head of household only; 
        other family members are tallied unnamed by age and sex.  For the 1850 
        and 1860 censuses, separate schedules list slaveowners and the age, sex, 
        and color (but not the name) of each slave.  The 1850 and 1860 schedules 
        include the name, age, and state, territory, or country of birth of each 
        free person in a household.  Additional information is included with each 
        succeeding census. 5

Due to privacy issues population schedules are sealed from public scrutiny for seventy-two years. Currently the public has access to schedules from 1790 to 1920. If records from 1930 - 1990 are desired a written request to the Census Bureau can be made. The following is excerpted from the Census Catalog & Guide: 1995 and provides additional information about special requests:

           Census staff will search the record of Federal
           censuses of population from 1910 on, stored at
           Jeffersonville, IN, and provide, for a fee, 
           official transcripts of personal data to indi-
           viduals who lack other birth or citizenship
           documents.  Government agencies and employers
           often accept these transcripts as evidence of
           age and place of birth for obtaining employ-
           ment, qualifying for social security benefits,
           and other purposes.  
           Because of Census Bureau confidentiality re-
           quirements, the personal information recorded
           in these censuses may be furnished only upon
           the written request of the named individual or
           his or her legal representative.
           A fee of $40 covers the cost of making the
           search and certifying the results.  Additional
           copies of the transcript are $2 each.  A full 
           census providing further information recorded
           about named individual(s), depending on the 
           particular items shown in a specific census,
           costs $10 more per name, that is, a minimum
           total of $50.
           Application forms, with more detailed infor-
           mation, can be obtained by contacting the 
           Personal Census Search Unit, Bureau of the Census,
           P.O. Box 1545, Jeffersonville, IN  47131; 
           telephone (812) 285-5314.

Check with the staff at the National Archives branch in Lakewood or the Western History and Genealogy staff of the Denver Public Library for further details. |next section| |Table of Contents|

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Date last modified: 2/98 Send comments to author Deborah Hollis. Note: Copyright 1996 Deborah R. Hollis. Unlimited permission to copy or use is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.