The following article was written by my good friend, William Dollarhide. Enjoy…

Dollarhide’s Genealogy Rule No. 9: An 1850 census record showing all twelve children in a family proves only that your ancestors did not have access to birth control.

The National Archives’ Guide to Genealogical Research in the National Archives (Washington: NARA, 1982), p.21, states: “The (1790) schedules for Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, New Jersey, Tennessee, and Virginia were burned during the War of 1812.”

That statement is not correct.

First of all, there was no federal census taken in Tennessee in 1790, which did not become a state until 1796. Tennessee was formed from the old Southwest Territory, which, along with the Northwest Territory, was specifically left out of the federal census taken in 1790. (See note 8 below). As to the others, when the British Army burned Washington in 1814, there were no original census schedules from the states located there. All of the original manuscripts were still located in the offices of the clerks of the federal district courts for each of the various states. There were no copies made, and none of the original censuses were ever sent to Washington until after an 1830 law required that they be transferred to the office of the Secretary of State. As a result, the only census schedules whose destruction could be blamed on the British Army was the 1810 census schedules for the District of Columbia, whose District/Supreme Court was located in Washington, DC.

If Not the British, Who Gets the Blame?
All of the early census losses, particularly those from 1790 through 1820, were a result of mishandling or neglect by the clerks of the federal district courts. Since the first census law (an act passed by Congress on 1 March 1790, published in United States Statutes at Large, Volume 2, page 564), the U.S. marshals were responsible for taking the census. In 1790, there was one U.S. marshal for each state/district, plus Kentucky (a district of Virginia) and Maine (a district of Massachusetts). The marshals appointed assistants to take the door-to-door enumeration in divisions to consist, as the 1790 act put it, “. . . of one or more counties, cities, towns, townships, hundreds, or water courses, mountains, or public roads.”

The 1790 census act gave enumerators nine months from the census day (the first Monday in August 1790) to enumerate the people, to post copies of the statistics “at two of the most public places” in the divisions, and to send the name lists to the marshal. The marshal then had four months to send “the aggregate amount” of each census to the president, having deposited the actual name lists with the clerk of the federal district court. Although the law was clear that the clerks were directed to “receive and carefully preserve the same,” some of the clerks obviously failed in their duties, particular those clerks in 1790 for the states/districts of Georgia, Kentucky, New Jersey, and Virginia. In 1800, blame the clerks for the territories/districts of Illinois, Indiana, Mississippi, and Missouri. In 1810, blame the clerks for the Michigan, and Ohio, and possibly the District of Columbia (along with the British); and in 1820, blame the clerks for Alabama and Arkansas.

In an act of 28 May 1830 (U.S. Statutes at Large, Vol. 4, p. 430) the clerks of the district courts were ordered to transfer to Washington all of the original census name lists in their care (those of the 1790 through 1820 censuses). The census losses, 1790-1820, are the only statewide census losses, except the 1890 census, lost resulting from a fire in 1921. There were missing counties, missing towns, missing E.D.s for censuses after 1820, but there were no other state-wide losses. The reason for the early census losses lies in the way the original censuses were treated by the clerks of the federal district courts. The British Army had nothing to do with it.

Now, if an official publication of the keeper of the original census manuscripts (the National Archives) dispenses incorrect information about the losses of the earliest censuses, the possible result is that people tend to believe them, and then the misinformation is repeated by other agencies. For example, at the website for the Georgia State Archives (ADAH), the devastating loss of Georgia’s 1790, 1800, and 1810 federal censuses was explained as “probably lost when the British burned Washington in 1814.” If Georgia genealogists were to do a little research in the federal district courts of Georgia, they might learn that the 1790 census schedules were first deposited at the office of the clerk of the district court within Georgia’s first U.S. District Court House, still located in Savannah, Georgia. There may have been multiple court buildings there since 1790. But the question arises: has anyone ever gone down to the second basement or third attic in the present court building looking for boxes of paper, bound volumes, loose manuscripts or any other evidence of lost census schedules? Probably not – after all, if the British burned them in 1814, why look?

A repeat of the district court house search exercise should be done in any state with one or more lost census years, 1790-1820. (They are listed in the table below). A place to start is any Historical Records Survey documents that included the federal district courthouses for those states – these were the WPA projects done in the late 1930s and early 1940s to conduct inventories of historical documents found in county, state, or federal court houses. Projects were done in all states, but few of the projects ever reached publication, and the work ended with the onset of World War II. Many of the field notes and unpublished inventories ended up in the National Archives.

Statewide Census Losses, 1790-1820
The table below shows the extent of statewide census losses for the 1790 through 1820 censuses.
A dash (—) in a column means a census was not taken for that state in that year. “Lost” means the census returns for that state were not sent to Washington after an 1830 law required their return, and were probably lost prior to 1830. “Extant” means the manuscripts of the census returns survive and microfilm/electronic copies of them are available.

(1) Three counties are missing from the 1820 Georgia schedules.
(2) Of Illinois Territory’s two counties in 1810, Randolph is extant and St. Clair is lost.
(3) Missing from the Indiana 1820 schedules is Daviess County.
(4) Three counties are missing from the Maryland 1790 schedules.
(5) Missing from the 1790 New Hampshire schedules are thirteen towns in Rockingham County and eleven towns in Strafford County.
(6) Missing from the North Carolina schedules are three counties in 1790, four counties in 1810, and six counties in 1820.
(7) In 1800, about a fourth of the population of the Northwest Territory was in Washington County, whose original census name list was discovered among the papers of the New Ohio Company in Marietta, Ohio. All other counties were lost.
(8) In a 1790 letter to Southwest Territory’s Governor William Blount, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson asked the Governor if he could have all county sheriffs take a census there, even though the first census law did not include territories, and Jefferson could provide no money for the effort. Governor Blount complied, but with a tally of the inhabitants only. Six years later, the Southwest Territory became the state of Tennessee.
(9) In 1820, two federal court districts were in place in Tennessee, one with an U.S. Courthouse in Nashville, the other in Knoxville. The original censuses returned to Washington according to the 1830 law were from the Nashville district only, representing the western two-thirds of the state. The twenty eastern counties enumerated within the 1820 Federal Court District out of Knoxville were not received in Washington and are presumed lost.
(10) The Census Bureau’s printed “Heads of Families” index to the 1790 census includes Virginia. However, these names were extracted and compiled from county tax lists of Virginia 1787-1789. Virginia’s original census schedules for 1790 were lost.
(11) An earlier version of this table was published in The Census Book: A Genealogist’s Guide to Federal Census Facts, Schedules, and Indexes, by William Dollarhide.