People of America

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Begun in 1790, the decennial censuses of the United States provide basic information about the population. Immigration statistics were recorded by the federal government only after 1820, and data on class have been derived from tax lists. Before 1790, most "statistics" are, in fact, estimates, based on scattered censuses and estimates of population taken at the request of the British government.

population size and growth

Between 1750 and 1830, the population of what became the United States grew from 1.1 million to 12.9 million people, as Table 1 shows. When the War for Independence began, about 2.5 million people lived in the thirteen colonies; the population had increased to about 4 million shortly after the new Constitution went in to effect in 1789. Overall, the rate of growth during this period was just over 30 percent each decade, a pattern that emerged about 1700 and would continue until 1860. Two centuries after the first census, the American population totaled almost 250 million. Most of the growth occurred because of the high rate of natural increase. Life expectancy at the time, as favorable as anywhere in the world, was far below modern standards. But American husbands and wives married early and had children rapidly—in the neighborhood of 50 births per 1,000 population each year. This, coupled with a moderate death rate and some immigration, produced an annual rate of increase of about 3 percent, sufficient to double the population in just under twenty-five years. Table 1 also shows the American people were spread thinly across the land, averaging only 7.4 people per square mile in 1830, partly because of the additions of the Louisiana Territory and East Florida in 1803 and 1819, respectively.

Population Size and Composition: 1750–1830
YearTotal Population% Black% UrbanMedian Age-WhitesSex RatioSquare MilesPopulation per Square Mile
* % non-white
17903,929,00019.35.115.9 (m)103.8888,8114.5

population composition

In considering the composition of the population between 1750 and 1830, first attention will go to age and sex. One of the striking characteristics of the population was its youthfulness, as is evident in Table 1. Starting in 1790, and in accord with many colonial censuses, the median age of the white population was about 16, rising slightly by 1830. In 1990 the median age was 36.9, over twice that of the period under consideration. This is not surprising, as high birth rates produce low median ages. At the top of the age pyramid, only about 4 percent of all Americans reached the age of 60.

One reason for the high birth rate was a relatively even balance between the sexes among whites, making marriage possible for all who wanted to marry. In the seventeenth century, the colonial population was often heavily male (about six men for every one woman in early Virginia), but by 1750 there were only 104 men for every 100 women, despite continued immigration favoring males in the eighteenth century. Among African Americans, the proportion of men would have been slightly higher, because there were more men captured and sold as slaves than women, but the decline in slave imports from 1775 to 1803 stabilized sex ratios for blacks.

Both men and children were slightly more common on the frontier than in more settled regions. In 1800, for example, the ratio of men to women in Massachusetts was 99 to 100, compared to 106 to 100 in Vermont. Similarly, while Pennsylvania's sex ratio was about 106, that in the neighboring Ohio Territory was 119. Even though women were relatively scarce in frontier regions, those who lived there had large families, as is evident in the proportion of the population under sixteen. The percent under sixteen in Massachusetts and Vermont stood at 46.9 and 52.7 respectively. In Pennsylvania and Ohio, the relevant figures were 49.9 and 55.5 percent.

The cultural pluralism familiar to twentieth-century American society was evident in the early national period, before the great nineteenth-century influx of immigration. As Table 1 shows, African Americans accounted for about one of every five Americans from 1750 to 1830. Although slavery as a legal status was defined in the middle of the seventeenth century, the majority of Africans sold as slaves in the future United States arrived between 1700 and 1770. With the Revolution, the importation of slaves slowed, and in many localities stopped. Although slaves were imported into places like South Carolina and Georgia after the war, the slave trade was outlawed by Congress in 1808, as soon as permitted under the Constitution. After a surge of immigration from Europe just before independence, the white population grew mostly by natural increase until about 1820. The slight decline in the proportion of blacks from 21.4 percent in 1770 to 18.1 percent in 1830 can be explained by better life chances and higher fertility among whites, and perhaps a slight advantage in immigrants.

One might assume that because the colonies were part of the British Empire, the colonists would have been overwhelmingly English. Table 2 demonstrates that was emphatically not the case. Table 2

Race and Ethnicity in 1790
(for states with surviving records)
State% English% Other White% Black
New Hampshire72.726.70.6
Rhode Island70.323.36.4
New York40.851.67.6
North Carolina29.743.526.8
South Carolina20.735.643.7

also shows that both Africans and non-English whites were not evenly distributed across the colonies and states. The data in Table 2, from the 1790 census, combine recent estimates of the ethnic origins of the white population, for those states where records with names survive, with information on the proportion that was black. Of the non-English whites, the majority were Scots or Scots-Irish, with notable presences in some localities of people with Dutch or German backgrounds. New England was, in fact, aptly named, as three of every four inhabitants traced their origins back to England. Only a few blacks (both slave and free) lived there. From Maryland to South Carolina, settlers with English roots no longer accounted for the majority of the white population, and in most southern states Americans with African origins outnumbered each of the white groups. The middle states of New York and Pennsylvania were dominated by non-English whites, with a small but significant black population, most of whom lived in or around the cities.

Although the federal government never included Native Americans in the census during this period, we must remember that they were a significant presence in 1750 from the Appalachian Mountains westward. In the South alone, there were over 55,000 Native Americans in 1750, including over 12,000 Creeks, 8,000 Cherokee, and 14,500 Choctaws. In the North, the Iroquois and their allies remained a powerful force until after the War for Independence. By 1830, however, most of the native peoples north of the Ohio River had been forced west of the Mississippi, and the Indian Removal Act of that year would lead to expulsion of most of the remaining native peoples in the South by 1838. The acquisition of the Louisiana Territory in 1803 added significant numbers of Native Americans to the United States.

The emergence of cities will be addressed more fully as part of migrations, but it is worth noting here that the proportion of the population living in urban areas (defined by the census as a place with at least 2,500 people) was only 5.1 percent in 1790. By 1830, the United States was still overwhelmingly rural, as only 8.8 percent lived in what might be called cities. An urban majority was first documented in the 1920 census, with the proportion rising to 75.2 percent two centuries after the first census.

Assessing class distinctions among the American people in this period depends on studies based on tax lists to provide some evidence into the relative wealth of Americans. In Boston, for example, the distribution of wealth, as measured in the tax lists, remained remarkably stable over the period, with the bottom third of all taxpayers holding no property and the top 10 percent owning about two-thirds of the wealth in the city. Elsewhere, increasing concentrations of wealth were common, especially in cities or settled regions. In Hingham, Massachusetts, the share of wealth held by the poorest 20 percent declined from 1.8 percent to 0.05 percent between 1754 and 1830. The share of the wealthiest 10 percent increased from 37.4 to 47.0 percent. Chester County, Pennsylvania, saw the share of wealth held by the richest ten percent rise from 29.9 to 38.3 percent between 1760 and 1802; the poorest 30 percent saw their share decrease from 6.3 to 3.9 percent. Frontier farming regions may have had more equal opportunities, as the wealthiest 10 percent of farmers in Sugar Creek, Illinois, in 1838 held only 25.0 percent of the wealth, compared to 9.7 percent among the bottom 20 percent. Cities and large towns, on the other hand, were places where wealth was often concentrated. In 1810, the richest one percent of the population in Brooklyn held property worth at least $15,000 and owned at least 22.0 percent of the wealth. By 1841 it took $50,000 to make it into the top one percent in Brooklyn, by which time that elite held at least 42.0 percent of the city's wealth.

A rare federal property tax in 1798 produced a national assessment of real property. This list shows that the average property holder held land and buildings worth $1,433, though only 49.4 percent of households held such property. The richest 10 percent held 45.0 percent, while 88.0 percent of the value of all real property was held by only half of all property owners. The average value of houses ranged from a high of $426 in Massachusetts to a low of $41 in Tennessee in 1798. In Vermont, the average house was assessed at $84, while in Virginia the comparable figure was $190.

Any discussion of class and wealth must recognize that the system of slavery meant that about one-fifth of Americans in 1750 were considered as property themselves, not legally entitled to own anything. By 1830 there were over 300,000 free blacks in the country; but while no longer property, many were among the poorest of Americans. In fact, slavery might best be viewed as a system of caste laid over a system of class.

Of religion, there is little to say with confidence other than the country was overwhelmingly Protestant, with a few Catholics, Jews, and Muslims (mostly African-born slaves) present. Numerous Protestant denominations contended for communicants in various parts of the country, with Congregationalists remaining strong in New England, Episcopalians in the Tidewater and low-country South, and Baptists and Methodists dominating the rest of the South and the West. The middle states were, from start to finish, a mosaic of multiplying and contending Protestant faiths.


During the years from 1775 to 1830, immigration may have been slower than at any other time in American history, with the exception of the 1930s. A surge of immigrants from England and Europe after 1760 came to an end with the War for Independence. Scant records suggest only modest numbers of arrivals until after 1820s; the great surge that brought over thirty million new people to the country by 1920 did not begin in a serious way until after 1845. During the first decade after the government thought it worth recording such data, the number of recorded immigrants was about 10,000 per year from 1820 to 1826, with the total more than doubling as the decade came to a close. In 1832, the number of immigrants jumped to just over 60,000 and topped 100,000 for the first time in 1842, about one-tenth of the yearly totals in the decades before World War I. Males accounted for from 65 to 80 percent of the total, most in the prime ages for work between fifteen and forty. This pattern of immigrants being predominantly males of working age would continue until after 1930.

The low level of immigration may have allowed Americans to become a more homogeneous people during the years they were establishing their new republican experiment. The emergence of African Americans out of a multiplicity of African origins has been well documented, and presumably the same may have happened among Americans of European background, aided by public ceremonies designed to foster national identity.

The transformation of the United States from a rural to an urban society clearly began during this period. In 1750, three cities in the colonies had at least 8,000 inhabitants: Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. Together, they accounted for 3.5 percent of the colonial population. By 1770, the largest city was Philadelphia, with approximately 28,000 residents. By the first census in 1790, another three cities had reached that size, though the proportion of the total population living in those places had declined slightly. The move to cities picked up noticeably after 1800, so that the census of 1830 recorded twenty-six places with at least 8,000 inhabitants, accounting for 6.7 percent of the people. New York had replaced Philadelphia as the largest city, with 202,589 inhabitants. The urbanizing trend was just getting started by 1830, as the 1890 census recorded 447 cities with at least 8,000 people. The 18 million Americans living in such places were 29.0 percent of the total.

The third great flow of migrants during and after this period was the movement from east to west. In 1750 the population of England's colonies was scattered, rarely more than 150 miles from the Atlantic Ocean. Over the next eighty years, a combination of a rapidly growing population, freedom from imperial restrictions, the acquisition of additional territory from France and Spain, and major innovations in transportation sent the American population westward. This migration is shown in Table 3. Although westward expansion is often celebrated in American history, it is important to remember that thousands of slaves were unwilling participants, and the native American population experienced contraction in the face of white expansion. The figures in Table 3 demonstrate not only the remarkable growth in the regions of the country comprised by the original thirteen states, but also the dramatic movement to new areas. Although only 109,368 lived in what became Kentucky and Tennessee in 1790, over 3.6 million people lived in the West by 1830, almost as many as in the United States in 1790. One result was the addition of eleven new states by 1821.

It is evident that, from the early years of the Revolution through the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Americans were unsure of whether they were one people or a collection of sections. No issue so clearly defined sectional differences as the presence or absence of slaves and free blacks. The end of slavery

Regional Population Growth: 1750–1830
* Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan
+ Only Missouri by 1830
^ Kentucky (1790), Tennessee (1790), Mississippi (1810), Alabama (1830)
# Louisiana (1810) and Arkansas (1830)
New England360,011581,0381,009,2061,471,9731,954,717
Middle Atlantic296,459555,904958,6322,014,7023,587,664
South Atlantic514,290991,7341,851,8062,674,8913,645,752
East North Central*272,3241,470,018
West North Central+19,783140,455
East South Central^19,400109,368708,5901,815,969
West South Central#77,618246,127

in the North led to an increase in the free black population, not only from slaves freed locally, but also from freed blacks moving from the South. Although the vast majority of African Americans living in the North were free by 1830, more free blacks lived in the South Atlantic region than in any other part of the country. Because of the internal slave trade, 490,024 slaves were living in the region comprised of Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama in 1830, more than the total number of black colonists in 1770.

The addition of the Louisiana Territory in 1803 and East Florida in 1819 brought a few French and Spanish colonists into the American population, but they were quickly overwhelmed by arrivals from the states. In these and later conquests, Native American populations nominally under the control of European empires or independent Mexico after 1821, were exposed to the expanding people of the United States, who considered it their divine destiny to populate and transform the entire North American continent.

See alsoAfrican Americans: Free Blacks in the North; African Americans: Free Blacks in the South; American Indians: American Indian Ethnography; American Indians: American Indian Removal; American Indians: Overview; City Growth and Development; Class: Overview; Demography; Frontier; Immigration and Immigrants; Migration and Population Movement; Slavery: Overview; West .


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Robert V. Wells

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