First Census

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First Census


By: Anonymous

Date: 1791

Source: United States Census Bureau. "First Census." <> (accessed June 18, 2006).

About the Photographer: This document is part of the public domain of the United States Government.


In 1790, the United States undertook the first national census in keeping with the constitutional requirement that every person in the country be accounted for once every ten years. The primary purpose of the census was to keep accurate records of the population and its distribution between the states so that the House of Representatives could adjust the number of representatives per district as necessary. In later years, the Federal government used the census records to determine how best to distribute funds for various programs, taking into consideration not just population but income and employment records that were included in the census.



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Even before the United States became an independent nation, census-taking was a fairly regular, if unregulated, activity. In the early 1600s, a census was taken in the then-colony of Virginia, and all colonies experienced a census at some point prior to their joining as the United States. The first national census was initiated by Thomas Jefferson, who was at that time Secretary of State. Marshals from the various U.S. judicial districts were assigned the duty of collecting the information in their region and covered the original thirteen states as well as the districts of Kentucky, Maine, and Vermont, and the territory that later became Tennessee. There was no formal questionnaire for the original census. The census takers were responsible for visiting every household, chronicling the name of the head of the house, and categorizing the inhabitants under one of the following descriptions: free, white males sixteen years or older; free, white males under the age of sixteen; free white females; all other free people (including sex and color); and slaves. The marshals traveled on horseback and collected the information on their own paper, as no materials had been provided by the government. Once completed, copies of the census records for each district were required by law to be posted in two of the most frequented public locations in the area, and the totals by category were sent to the President. The census took a total of eighteen months to complete, cost $45,000, and the marshals counted a total of 3.9 million people. The results provided the nation not only with information regarding population distribution for the purpose of maintaining an accurate number in Congress, but also showed the number of men in each district who were of employment age or old enough to participate in military actions in time of war.

The 1791 census provided a basis for all future records. Over the next few decades, the information recorded by the census takers remained very much the same, with the occasional addition of a new age bracket to be counted as a category. The states began providing forms for the marshals to use after the first census, and in 1830, the government printed the first official forms to be used nationwide. Additional questions began to appear in greater numbers, including inquiries as to regional agriculture, fishing, mining, and industries. In 1850, the census began to include all free individuals by name, occupation, and place of birth, instead of just the heads of households. Social issues also became a part of the census, with questions asked regarding taxation, church attendance, poverty, and crime rates, providing the government with a much clearer image of the types of people living in each district and the relative wealth of each area of the nation. U.S. marshals continued to operate as census takers until 1880, when an official census office was established as part of the Department of the Interior, and professionals were hired for this duty.

Changes in the nation, both physical and social, can be tracked through the development of the census. The most obvious physical change is the growth of the country, accounted for both by the addition of territories and states over the decades, and by the increase in population due to birth rates and improved living conditions and medical care. In addition, regions of the nation altered as new cities grew and demographics were altered by shifts in populations. People moved west as the nation expanded, and immigrants coming to the United States from Europe and beyond gravitated toward cities and other areas with job opportunities. All of these shifts were reflected in the census results. Social and political trends were also reflected in the questions asked by the census and by the ways in which the population was recorded. In 1868, the United States ratified the Fourteenth Amendment, and African Americans were no longer counted by the three-fifths rule as a result. As of 1870, American Indians began to be included in census numbers, assuming they were not living on a reservation or in one of the territories, and members of the Chinese population also began to be counted. It was not until 1970 when census takers began to indicate whether a person was of Hispanic descent. The definition of the head of household changed in 1980, allowing that a woman might be the head of her household. Over the history of the census, the numbers reflect not only how many people live in the United States, and where, but how the United States categorizes and considers its citizens.



Holt, William S. The Bureau of the Census: Its History, Activities, and Organization. New York: AMS Press, 1929.

Scott, Anna H.Census, USA: Fact Finding for the American People. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1968.

Web sites

U.S. Census Bureau. "History." May 29, 2003. <http://www.> (accessed June 18, 2006).

U.S. Census Bureau. "Measuring America: The Decennial Census from 1790 to 2000." February 6, 2006. <http://> (accessed June 18, 2006).

Yale University Library Government Documents and Information Center. "Guide to Decennial Censuses." 2002. <> (accessed June 18, 2006).

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First Census

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