United States Census Historical Background
The U.S. Constitution requires a federal census for apportioning the House of Representatives and for apportioning direct taxes. In accordance, the first federal census was taken in 1790 and has been repeated every ten years, always in a year ending with a zero. President Washington in assigned the task of taking the 1790 census to the seventeen United States Marshalls. The first census was taken using existing civil divisions.
The early censuses were limited to an enumeration of persons in gender and age categories. Only the name of the head of house was given. As time progressed, more and more questions were asked on the census forms. For example, starting in 1850 each member of a household was named, along with that person's state or nation of birth. Starting in 1880 the birthplace of the father and mother of each individual was also listed. Starting in 1900 questions about immigration to the United States and citizenship were added to the list.
Most federal censuses were created in triplicate. The local census taker created a draft copy as he walked from house to house to question the people. He would later create a handwritten second copy for the state, and a third copy for the federal government. Copying errors often resulted in slight differences between the various copies. Only a few of the local or state copies have survived. Occasionally, large cities were enumerated twice in the same year when an under-count was suspected the first time.
Szucs, Loretto Dennis and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking, ed. The Source, A Guidebook to American Genealogy. (Provo, Utah: Ancestry, 2006).
Sources and Footnotes
- Constitution for the United States Article 1, Section 2, "Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons. The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct."