March 1, 1790: The First US Census (Census Shmensus!)

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A Brief History

On March 1, 1790, the first census in the history of the United States was authorized, with some interesting results. Article One of the US Constitution mandates that a census be taken every 10 years, an important task since allocation of representatives to Congress and allocation of funds and other things are based where the population is currently living. The most recent census was compiled in 2010 and presents an interesting comparison to the 1790 results.

Digging Deeper

The census has taken on a certain amount of resistance from conspiracy theorists, including the move of the Census Bureau from the Department of Commerce to the White House in 2010. Distrust of providing any personal information to the Government leads many people to avoid providing their data or providing false data. Many homeless people are not counted, as are many people avoiding criminal or civil liabilities. Minorities complain that they are underrepresented in the count, while others claim minorities are over-represented in order to somehow decrease the political power of the White majority.

Census regional marketing logo in Minnesota.

People from the political left and the political right both think their side is getting somehow shafted by the census process. Other people want more demographic included in census statistics, such as counting transgender people, while others are unhappy with the choices for race, sex, gender, religion, etc. It really does seem as though what started as a relatively simple idea has become a complicated nightmare!

In 1790, census takers found the total US population to be 3,929,214, of which almost 700,000 were slaves (about 17%). This first census enumerated the population into 5 categories, Free White Males over 16, Free White Males under 16, Females, all other Free Persons, and Slaves. Native Americans did not have a category and were probably not counted the first several times the census was taken, and even once they began to be counted the reporting was surely somewhat unreliable. Virginia had the most people of the 13 states (eventually data from 16 states were included, from Kentucky/1792, Vermont/1791, Maine/1820), with a reported 110,936, with Pennsylvania right behind at 110,788. The next 2 most populous states were Massachusetts with 95,453 and New York with 83,700 people. The least populous state was Georgia with 13,103 people although it was the largest state by area. The only states to report no slaves at all were Maine and Massachusetts.

The data from Vermont was not added until 1791 when it was admitted to the Union, having previously been technically a separate country before then. Kentucky was added as a state in 1792, and Maine was part of Massachusetts until 1820, but is listed separately in the census.

A woman with a Hollerith pantograph punch, the keyboard is for the 1920 US Census population card

As of the 2010 census, the most populous states were not even in the United States in 1790, California boasting the most people with 33,871,648, followed by Texas with 20,851,820. New York is now in third place, with Florida rising to fourth. Illinois, Pennsylvania and Ohio are the only other states with over 10,000,000 people in the 2010 census. Massachusetts, the most populous state from 1790, had dropped to fourteenth place. Another fascinating fact from 2010 is that Washington, D.C. has more people (601,723) than Wyoming (563,626), our least populous state. Vermont, the fourteenth state and one of the original 13 colonies, ranked forty-ninth of the 50 states.

In 2010, 14 of our largest cities’ metropolitan areas outnumbered the population of the entire country in 1790, led by New York City, with a metropolitan area population of 19,567,410. The only other city with a metropolitan population over 10 million is Los Angeles with 12,828,837, although Chicago is close.  Even back in 1790 New York City was our most populous, with 33,131 people. Philadelphia was second with 28,522 people, and only Boston, Charleston, and Baltimore had over 10,000 people. Interestingly, in sixth place was Northern Liberties, Pennsylvania, population 9,913, a place this author had never heard of! Northern Liberties became part of Philadelphia in 1854. The seventh place city in 1790, Charleston, South Carolina, has only 134,000 people today, not ranking anywhere near the top 50 in the US. Other high ranking cities by population in 1790 are considered small cities today, such as Newport, Rhode Island, Providence, Rhode Island and Marblehead, Massachusetts. In fact, most (but not all) of the next several cities on the 1790 list are places the author has not heard of.

The United States in 2010 had a population of 308,745,538 and has perhaps 325,710,000 today. And you wonder why you cannot find a parking space!  Question for students (and subscribers): Do you have any profound thoughts about the US Census? Or perhaps interesting tales? If so, please share them with us in the comments section below this article.

(Note: Despite meticulous Roman record keeping, there is no record of a census held in Israel/Palestine around the time of the birth of Christ. Not only that, even if there was, people were not required to go back to where they were born to be counted, all this being a curious inconsistency in the New Testament.)

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Dollarhide, William. The Census Book: A Genealogist’s Guide to Federal Census Facts, Schedules and Indexes. Heritage Quest, 1999.

Hinckley, Kathleen. Your Guide to the Federal Census. Betterway Books, 2002.

Lainhart, Ann. State Census Records. Genealogical Publishing, 1992.


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.