How to Trace Your Ancestors with the 1790-1810 US Census

Most genealogists working in the US have learned what a valuable tool the US Census is. But the ins and outs of each census record are intricate. It seems like each decade something changed about the information included or the way it was recorded. This perception is quite often the case. The history of the US Census Records is important to understand when using it as a resource to trace your ancestors. This article features census searching tips and covers the history of the US Census from 1790 to 1810. Part two in this series covers US Census history from 1820 to 1880, including 1850, a watershed year in census history. The third and last article covers the history of the census from 1890 to the present.

Census Searching Tips

Try any and all spellings of first and last names, or use Soundex if possible. Some enumerators were quite "creative" in recording people's names. Especially in earlier censuses, many people could not write or spell their own name for the enumerator. Recent immigrants might also have had thick accents. McCollum, for example, might be rendered McCullum, McCullom, MacCallum (its derivation), MacCollum, McColm, McCollin (that's straight from the census record), etc. A fairly common name, Franklin has fourteen extant spelling variations that might appear (including two f's, two n's, ck for k, y for i, a silent e, and combinations of the four). My husband's genealogy has the surname Faulkner spelled four different ways in four generations, and each of those men could have used any or all of those spellings during their lives, if they were literate. You get the idea. Keep in mind that city, county and state boundaries have changed, especially from the times of the earliest censuses. Counties existed then that don't now, and vice versa. There is a map guide to help you find locations in each census.

When reading census records, read every column, all the way across the page. The wealth of information contained in each census records helps you to learn more about your ancestors. It can also point you toward more documents, like tax, property, military, immigration and naturalization records. Searching census and other records can be a time-consuming task. A professional genealogy research service can provide you with thoroughly-researched, pertinent information from census and other records.

Tracing Your Ancestors with the 1790-1810 Censuses

By order of the Constitution, an official enumeration of United States citizens needed to be made to determine the exact number of representatives each state warranted in the new Congress. Repeated every ten years, the census was posted in a public place for verification and sent to Congress.

The first censuses listed each head of household by name and gave the number of free white persons and slaves in the household. Beginning in 1810, these counts were divided by age group and gender. For example, a family might be listed by the father's name and indicate that there was one free female under 10, one slave female and one slave male 10-16 years old, one free female between 16 and 26, one free male 26-45 and one free male over 45. For these six people, we have only one name. For full names and exact ages, other records are necessary. This notation system was used through the 1840 census.

Census records of the 1790 census are missing from Delaware, Kentucky, New Jersey, Georgia, and Virginia. They were lost some time before 1830. These were the first but not the last census records to be destroyed through carelessness. It appears that the 1800 census is complete.

The 1810 census also lists information on "manufacturing." Census takers were not told exactly what to inquire about for this category, so it may include personal property, livestock, etc. Indications of property should also lead you to tax and deed information.

A descendant of many avid genealogists, Jordan McCollum works for 10x Marketing, an internet marketing firm. For more information on tracing your ancestors or professional genealogist research, see

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