Taking of the Census

From: Sue Dutton Rodgers <oldolls@ipa.net>
Subject: Taking of the Census
Date: 1998-08-19 19:36:51
Don't know how many of you subscribe to the Charles County Md List, but
Barbara Bonham posted this info on the first census and I found it

by Loretto D. Szucs

In March 1790, President Washington signed the first census act.
The census was first taken to determine the apportioning for
congressional representation and it is the primary reason for
taking the modern-day census. Thomas Jefferson, who was Secretary
of State at the time, sent a copy of the law to each of the 17
U.S. marshals and instructed them to take the census. On August
2, 1790, 208 years ago Sunday, the census began.

The Constitution that was ratified in 1787 called for a census
every 10 years of all "Persons, excluding Indians not taxed: for
the purpose of appropriating seats in the House of
Representatives and assessing direct federal taxes. Indians not
taxed were not living in the settled areas. In later years,
American Indians everywhere were considered part of the total
population, but they were not included in the apportionment
figures until 1940.

The first census act asked the marshals to distinguish in their
counts between free white males 16 years of age or older and
those under 16. This would allow the government some measure of
the country's industrial and military potential should a war or
other uprising occur.

Aside from putting down the names of family heads, the marshals
then were asked only to count the number of free white
females--without any age distribution--and all other free persons
regardless of race, or gender and slaves.

>From the beginning the census law had teeth. Anyone refusing to
answer was liable to a $20 fine, to be split between the
marshals' assistants and the government. Each assistant also had
to post a copy of his census return--usually on whatever paper he
could find in two public places in his assigned area. Presumably,
everyone could see it there and call discrepancies or omissions
to the attention of those who mattered.

In the earliest years of census taking, the enumerator's job
wasn't an especially easy one. The highest pay rate, $1 for 50
persons barely covered expenses of buying paper and supplies and
traveling around to do the actual count. It was an especially
expensive proposition where settlers were scattered over the

Likewise, cooperation was often difficult to obtain from people
suspicious of any government representative and people were
especially wary of anything that might mean being taxed.

The marshals were supposed to finish the census within 9 months
of the Census day or by May 1, 1791. Although most of the returns
were in long before the deadline, Congress had to extend it
finally until March 1, 1792. By that time some of the people who
were counted hadn't even been around in 1790, and others who were
present for the first months of the count had possibly died or
moved away.

Nevertheless, the marshals and their assistants counted 3.9
million people in the U.S. for 1790.

Since there were no telephones and no reliable mail service, the
only way to gather information with any hope of accuracy was to
canvass door to door. At each dwelling he visited, the assistant
marshal was required to write down only one name--that of the
head of the house. The law defined the head as the master,
mistress, steward, overseer, or other principal person. Then,
only numbers were recorded for others in that household.

The need to distinguish between the numbers of slaves and free
individuals was critical for compliance with another agreement
reached in the Constitutional Convention. The touchy question of
whether and how to include slaves in the census count had been
settled by an agreement called the "three-fifths compromise."
Each slave, for purposes of apportionment, was counted as
three-fifths of a whole person. The only individuals completely
exempt by law from being counted in the census were Indians who
did not live in settled areas or pay taxes.

The census is about the only kind of record available that
connects a family as an entire unit. And the information in the
census is largely unduplicated in other records created by
various levels of government. Over the years the original purpose
of this people count has been expanded to include the gathering
of data for various statistical uses, which has progressively
increased the value of the census.

The job of gathering census information was fraught with
obstacles and pitfalls. Besides having to buy their own paper and
pens, boundaries were rarely precise or well marked, making it
difficult for an assistant marshal to know for sure where his
geographic area of responsibility began or ended.

We also have to remember the time period. Most of the United
States was a landscape of small villages and isolated scattered
farms. The only means of transportation was by wretched roads and
rugged terrain, sometimes only by boat, making the task nearly
impossible in some cases.

Keep in mind that the men employed in this challenging task were
not necessarily motivated or qualified for the job--a job that
was characterized by low pay, potentially difficult working
conditions, and frequently demanding travel. Wages were terrible.
Add to that a vicious dog or household head, and the job was
pretty near impossible.

An assistant marshal who followed the customary pattern of
seeking out families in his district might arrive at an isolated
farm after a long and difficult journey only to find no one at
home to answer his six simple questions. He then had to decide
whether to come back another day or fall back on other resources,
such as asking neighbors to find out what little they knew about
their neighbors. Or sometimes he might even have been tempted to
venture a guess at the right data. Respondents sometimes lied to
the assistant marshal, or just plainly refused to cooperate.

Some new Americans had religious objections to complying with a
census. The Old Testament described in two different places how
King David, by ordering a count of the people of Israel, incurred
the wrath of the Lord, who sent pestilence upon Israel; and there
fell of Israel seventy thousand men. Fear of violating this
Biblical injunction against enumerating the population had been a
stumbling block during the colonial period and it continued for

Recognizing the greater problems involved in taking a headcount,
the federal government at least provided for different
compensation scales in counting the inhabitants of the
hinterland. Assistant marshals responsible for cities of 5,000 or
more were paid $1 for every 150 people counted, and those
assigned to the most remote frontier regions received a dollar
for as few as every 50 people counted.

The 1790 census is incomplete. Schedules are missing for several
states, and counties of some states. There are some compilations
that infer that the census records for missing states and smaller
units have been reconstructed. It's a little misleading because
most of these lists have been created from tax lists. They still
have value in placing people in a place and a time, but they
shouldn't be mistaken for census records.

Despite the inaccuracies, the census is one of the most valuable
tools available to genealogists. Being aware of these
inaccuracies can keep us from being led down the wrong path by
assuming the information is correct, and allows us to use these
records as road signs that guide us to other, more accurate

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