Early U.S. Federal Census Records, 1790-1840

How Can Early Census Records Help Us Study and Research Our Ancestors?

  • They provide key genealogical data:  Name of the head-of-household.
  • Details of their lives are given.
  • They provide a location of residence: Locate them, locate other records!
  • They can help estimate important dates.  If someone from an age category is missing, it could indicate a death or marriage.
  • They offer clues  on what other types of records should be searched for.
  • They give data for family profiling: Build a family profile by age and sex categories.
  • Information for theory building is provided.

Early Census Facts

  • 1790-1840 censuses did not count Native Americans living on reservations or as nomad tribes.
  • 1790-1820 – There were no preprinted forms.  Enumerators were given sample copies and they were to make all their own copies, ruling lines on the forms himself.
  • The census was public through the 1840 census. They were posted publicly to catch omissions and errors.  Currently, the information is private until 72 years after the records are taken.

Select Household Details Given Year by Year, 1790-1840 U.S. Federal Census

To view a complete list of questions asked for 1790-1840 click here. 


  • The head-of-household is named.
  • Number of white females and broad age categories for white males.
  • Number of slaves – could lead to estate, property or tax records, which may give a slave’s names and age.
  • Number of “other” free persons is a category.  This means nonwhite racial/ethnic groups.  Heads of households are named in this category.


  • More detailed age categories for free white males and females help you build a more detailed profile.
  • “Other” free persons and slave categories are the same.
  • Some 1800 census records were rearranged in alphabetical order instead of visitation order.


  • Same details as 1800 except:
    •  Enumerators were instructed to obtain information about manufacturing, but were not told what questions to ask.  This meant that data varied widely.
    • Manufacturing information is listed with the population data, at the end of the specified population data.
    • Many enumerators did not ask these questions.


  • An age category for free white males between 16-18 years old is added.
    • This is to identify young men available for military service.
    • The men in this category are also listed in the “of 16 and under 26” category.  Be sure not to count them twice.
    • This shortened age category helps narrow down ages.
  • Age categories are added for slaves and “free colored.”   
    • “Colored” most likely denotes African Americans, but may mean those of a darker skin tone – i.e. someone from Spain, Barbados etc.
  • Number of foreigners not naturalized. 
    • This is a clue to search for naturalization records
    • The family may have recently immigrated.  This is a clue to check passenger lists.
  • Number of persons engaged in agriculture, commerce and manufactures.
    • Gives clues to occupation.
  •  A non-population schedule was taken for manufacturing.
    • This schedule is separate from the population schedules.  It is available on microfilm from NARA.
    • Some questions asked were: owner’s name, location of business, type of business, number employees, capital invested, annual production, general remarks.
    • Irregularities with this schedule – some persons listed as manufacturers were not listed, some listed as “engaged in agriculture” were listed, some persons not listed as a head of household were listed in the manufacturing schedule.


  • Age categories are expanded.  This helps narrow ages.
  • The census day change between 1820 and 1830 may give clues to birth dates.
    • The 1830 census was taken less than 10 years after the 1820 census.  The 1820 census day was August 7.  The 1830 census day was June 1.
    • This could narrow a birth date to a 2 month period.
    • A person listed in the “to 10 years old” category in 1820, and listed in the “of 5 and under 10” would have been born between June 2 and August 6.
    •  Remember to consider child deaths and errors when thinking about this possibility.


  • Pre-printed forms provided by the government were used for the first time.
  • Categories for “deaf and dumb” and “blind” white and slaves or free colored were added.
    • This indicates that there may be records related to guardianship or institutional records.
  • White aliens not naturalized is repeated.
    •  Clue to possible naturalization papers.
  • Age categories remain the same.
  • Clues to occupation:
    • Lists persons employed in: mining; agriculture; commerce; manufacturing and trades; navigation of the oceans; navigation of lakes; canals and rivers; learned professions and engineering.
  • Clues to education:
    • Number of scholars at: universities, colleges, academies, grammar schools, primary, common schools; public charge are recorded.  Search for school yearbooks and alumni directories, as well as school records.
    • Number of white males over 21 who could not read or write.
  • The names and ages of Revolutionary War Pensioners were listed.  Search for the individual’s pension file.  Pension files are usually rich in genealogical detail.
  • “Deaf and dumb” and “blind” categories remain the same.  Search for institutional records in the area.
  • Number of insane and idiotic whites at private and public charge categories are added.
    • These can be clues to possible institutional records.

To view a list of New York State Census holdings in the Grosvenor Room click here.

This entry was posted in Genealogy and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.