Peculiarities of the First Federal Censuses

The following article was written by my friend, William Dollarhide:

Dollarhide’s Rule No. 29: The page on the census where your ancestor’s town was enumerated has no page number.

Since the first census of 1790, the states have not been involved in taking a national census except to review and act on the reports generated. The national census has always been a federal responsibility. Congress did not get around to creating a “Census Office” until just before the 1850 census. And, the Bureau of the Census did not become a permanent federal agency until 1902.

Question (a test follows later): If not the responsibility of a state, and there was no census bureau, what federal agency was responsible for taking the first censuses?

Answer: The first nine censuses (1790-1870) were conducted by assistant federal marshals of the United States Federal Court System.

One U.S Marshal was assigned to each federal court district, and it was his job to hire and manage the assistant marshals to take the census door-to-door in his district. Beginning in 1800, a territorial governor was responsible for the census enumeration in a territory, but still used temporary assistant federal marshals to do the door-to-door work. The first census taken entirely by the federal Census Office, including hiring of door-to-door census takers, was the 1880 federal census.

Federal Court Districts vs States & Territories

For the first nine federal censuses, the federal court districts did not always match up with state or territorial boundaries. For example, at the time of the 1790 census, there were 16 federal court districts, but only 14 states. Vermont entered the Union as the 14th state in early 1791. Soon after, Congress passed a special law to include Vermont in the first census, with a census day designated as the first Monday in April, 1791, and with five months allowed to take the census there. The other federal court districts were enumerated with a census day on the first day in August 1790, with nine months to complete the enumeration. The 16 districts included the original 13 states, plus the new state of Vermont. But, there were also two federal court districts that had not become states yet.

In 1790, Virginia had two federal court districts, each with their own United States Court House. One Virginia district had the same boundaries as what was to become the state of Kentucky in 1792. Massachusetts also had two federal court districts, one of which had the same district boundaries as the future state of Maine. The rest of the states had federal court district boundaries that were the same as their state boundaries in 1790. In subsequent censuses, several states had more than one federal court district. Today, some states have as many as four federal court districts, which are generally determined by population size.

Territorial Censuses

The 1790 census, like all others, was taken for determining seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. Since people living in territories did not have representation in Congress, no perceived need existed for a census to be taken in the old Northwest Territory or the Southwest Territory. Soon after the law providing for the 1790 census was enacted, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, perhaps as an afterthought, wrote a letter to the governor of the Southwest Territory (the territory that became the state of Tennessee in 1796). Jefferson asked Governor Blount if he wouldn’t mind taking a census, even though it was not required under the law; and he had neither money allocated, nor a federal marshal to do it. But, since he knew that Blount had “sheriffs who will be traversing their Districts for other purposes,” Jefferson wondered if the Governor could ask them to take a census “arranged under the same classes prescribed . . . for the general census.” Blount complied, in a way, by providing the secretary with a count of the territory’s inhabitants but without listing their names. His report was dated 19 September 1791.

Presumably, Jefferson would have asked the same for Governor St. Clair of the Northwest Territory in 1790, but St. Clair was up to his neck fighting off Indian attacks and not available for much else that year. No enumeration of the Northwest Territory was taken until 1800, which in that year had been reduced in size with the creation of Indiana Territory. 1800 was also the first census taken in the state of Tennessee.

Early Census Takers

Before the March 1790 law authorizing the first census, there was much debate in Congress about the various aspects of the first census, including the compensation for an assistant marshal. Several members of Congress were worried that the amount was not high enough to attract people to the job. One member of Congress reminded his colleagues of the Bible story about King David, who was blamed for a terrible plague in Israel immediately after a census was taken. The representative from New York remembered that back in the 1770s most of the residents of a New York town had fallen sick right after they had been visited by a British census taker. The representatives wondered if taking a census would ever be possible, given the prevailing superstitions about censuses overall. Nevertheless, in the end, a sum of about $44,000 was spent in taking the 1790 census that was reported to the President in a pamphlet of fifty-six pages. That worked out to a cost of about 1.1 cents per person enumerated. In comparison, the 2010 Census cost $13 billion or about $42.00 per capita, and was officially reported in over a half-million pages of data.

Compensation paid to the assistant marshals who were taking the 1790 census was set by law to be $1.00 for every 300 persons in cities and towns containing more than 5,000 people, and $1.00 for every 150 persons in rural areas. However, the law allowed the U.S. marshal to pay $1.00 for every 50 persons in areas determined to be sparsely populated or difficult to reach, subject to a ruling by the federal judge in his district. Each assistant marshal was given a sample copy of the 1790 census form; and he was expected to make all his own copies, ruling the lines of the forms himself. He was also required to pay for his pens, ink, paper, and all other expenses incurred in taking the census.

Samuel Bradford, the assistant marshal for the city of Boston, began his work door-to-door on 2 August 1790, and by 21 August had completed his enumeration. In 1790, Boston had a population of 18,320 people. Bradford’s notebook shows that the work required seventeen working days. He enumerated an average of 1,075 persons per day. As his compensation was $1.00 for every 300 persons, his earnings amounted to about $3.59 per day, a figure much higher than his rural counterparts and not a bad wage for 1790.

Mr. Bradford could have learned how to increase his pay even more by the example of Clement Biddle, the U.S. marshal for the state of Pennsylvania. Biddle was in charge of the 1790 census taken in that state. Coincidentally, in 1791, Biddle published a directory of the city of Philadelphia, which, apparently, was a profitable success. Comparing the names in the 1791 directory with the 1790 census returns for Philadelphia reveals that Mr. Biddle added very little to his directory. Publishing the city directory may have been a plan of Mr. Biddle’s all along – the Philadelphia 1790 census list included occupations for heads of household, which, of course, was information repeated in the Biddle directory. “Occupation” was not a category on Mr. Biddle’s sample census format given to him by the U.S. Secretary of State. Click here for a look at Clement Biddle’s 1791 Philadelphia Directory.

Census Taker Complaints

Mr. Bradford of Boston and Mr. Biddle of Philadelphia both did fairly well in 1790. But, most census takers were not having much job satisfaction. For example, after taking the Morgan County, North Carolina, census in 1790, the assistant marshal there wrote a few words of complaint at the end of his list of names:

“I have been Closely Employd Since the 25 of December Last. One Other man has been closely Employd Since the 6th of January; one other has been Employd Since the 12 of January; a third one Since the 1st of March and Two others A Week Each and all had Since to fall behind. After riding horses almost to Death. This is a True State of Facts. No one Man Can Number the People in the District of Morgan Going from House to House in 18 Months I Aver, and if there is no Provision to Collect the people in the Next Law, no man that understands will have anything to do with it.”

At the end of the 1820 Hall County, Georgia, schedules, the assistant marshal wrote the following:

“The difficulties were very considerable that attended taking the census, in the first place, the inhabitants are very dispersed, in the second place the country being but lately settled, there are but few roads, in the third place great part of the Country are very Mountainous, and in the fourth place it was, except in the oldest settled parts, difficult to get nourishment for either myself or horse, and often when got, had to pay very high, in the 5th place had often to travel a considerable distance through fields to get to the dwelling cabins, often, and generally, drenchd in dew, particularly in August and September; and often had to walk many miles where it was so steep that I could not ride, or even set on my horse.”

If the earliest census takers had these sort of problems, then the situation must have improved over the years . . . Right? Wrong. Not if you had the job of taking a census in Southern Oregon. Stay tuned for my next column – a story about taking the 1950 census in the Applegate Valley of Oregon.

For more information about early census records, check out Thorndale and Dollarhide’s Map Guide to the U.S. Federal Censuses 1790-1920.

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