Two hundred and twenty-three years ago, on March 1, 1790, Congress passed the First Census Act. They gave the responsibility of collecting information to the marshalls of the U.S. judicial districts, who beginning on Census Day, August 2, 1790, recorded the names of the heads of household in the thirteen states as well as the districts and territories that would eventually become Vermont, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Maine. 

The signatures of President George Washington, Vice President John Adams, and Speaker of the House Frederick Muhlenberg as they appear on the First Census Act. (image courtesy of

The signatures of President George Washington, Vice President John Adams, and Speaker of the House Frederick Muhlenberg as they appear on the First Census Act. (image courtesy of

In addition to the name of the heads of household, the first census also recorded the number of persons in each household matching the following descriptions:

  • Free White males of 16 years and upward
  • Free White males under 16 years
  • Free White females
  • All other free persons
  • Slaves

Unlike later censuses, there is no standardized form for the 1790 census. Instead, census takers were expected to make use of whatever paper they could find and could choose any format they preferred for marking down the information.

Almost one-third of the information from this first census was lost prior to 1830. Before that year only one copy of the census record was made, and it was held with the district court rather than at the capital. Fortunately for researchers, much of the lost information has been supplemented through other sources.

The data from the first census was used mainly for tax purposes and to determine the appropriate number of seats in the House of Representatives. The oldest set of males counted also helped the government determine their industrial and military potential.

My 4th-Great Grandfather in the 1790 census for Fairfield, CT.

My 4th-great grandfather, Stephen Longwell, in the 1790 census for Fairfield, CT.

With the very limited amount of information available in this early census record, you may be wondering what researchers can hope to learn from them. While it’s true that little concrete information can be gained, with a little detective work, these records can help you determine important aspects of your ancestors’ lives.

First of all, the census places them in a particular place at a specific time. Knowing where they lived can help you narrow your search for other records pertaining to their lives there. The census can also help you determine a range for the date of birth of your ancestor. Finding birth dates from this early time period can be difficult, but the early census records can provide with a rough idea of when your ancestor was born. Finally, I think there’s a bit of a “wow” factor to be gained from seeing your ancestors name listed in the very first census and knowing that a member of your family was there for this monumental occurrence.

Have you found any of your ancestors listed in the first census?

One response to “Family Tree: The First Census”

  1. basil berchekas jr says:

    Must stay with this one; the Constitution requires the Census be taken…it’d be interesting to see what the future territory that made up the future Hoosier state had for population…

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