1790 Census: Conducted 225 Years Ago

.. the 1790 census, and the first enumeration of the U.S. population, was conducted 225 years ago, commencing in August 1790. The total population of the United States in 1790 was 3,929,214 and the entire cost of the first enumeration was $44,377.28.

This section summarizes selected features of the 1790 Census as described in more detail in the document “The History and Growth of the United States Census” prepared in February 1900, by Carroll D. Wright (U.S. Commissioner of Labor) and William O. Hunt (U.S. Chief Statistician, Twelfth Census). That document focused on the history of the decennial census from 1790 through 1890. See full document (PDF).

The First Census
The constitutional requirement under which the Federal census is taken is contained in Article I, section 2, and provides that Representatives and direct taxes shall he apportioned among the several States which may be included “within the Union” according to their respective numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole number of free persons, including those bound to service for a term of years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three-fifths of all other persons. The actual enumeration was required to 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.

For the purposes of the 1790 enumeration, which was to commence on the first Monday in August, 1790, and close within nine calendar months thereafter, marshals were empowered to appoint as many assistants within their respective districts as they deemed necessary, and to assign to each assistant a certain division, consisting of one or more counties, cities, towns, townships, hundreds, or parishes.

The six questions in 1790 called for the name of the head of the family and the number of persons in each household of the following descriptions:
  • Free White males of 16 years and upward
    – to assess the country’s industrial and military potential
  • Free White males under 16 years
  • Free White females
  • All other free persons
  • Slaves

American Indian Population
Prior to 1900, few Indians are included in the decennial census. Indians are not identified in the 1790-1840 censuses. In 1860, Indians living in the general population are identified for the first time. Beginning with the 1900 census, Indians are enumerated on reservations as well as in the general population.

1790 Census Results
The 1790 census results are summarized by state/district in the following graphic.

View the above table as a part of the more comprehensive report (zip file expanding to PDF).

Census History 1790 – 1850
The leading features of the law of 1790, and the statement of the manner in which the “returns” were made, are described at length in the Census History document, not only because very nearly the same provisions of law governed the taking of the census until 1850, with minor modifications and extensions, but also because of its historical interest as being the first enumeration under the Constitution, and the earliest attempt anywhere to conduct a periodic census.

About the Author
— Warren Glimpse is former senior Census Bureau statistician responsible for innovative data access and use operations. He is also the former associate director of the U.S. Office of Federal Statistical Policy and Standards for data access and use. He has more than 20 years of experience in the private sector developing data resources and tools for integration and analysis of geographic, demographic, economic and business data.

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