Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The 1790 Census

Joelle comments:
”I just don’t get much out of the 1790 census.  I already know the head of household’s name and the ages of the other people don’t tell me anything.”

This is one of those analyzing the data moments.  Let’s look at a sample entry:

Philip Perry household1
1 free white male age 16 and over
2 free white males under age 16
2 free white females

  • Philip was alive on 02 August 1790
  • Philip was living in Robeson County, North Carolina on 02 August 1790
  • Philip was born before 1775
  • Philip most likely had a wife and three children, two boys and 1 girl, all living on 02 August 1790. The two sons would have been born between 1775-1790.
  • Philip married before 1790
  • Philip had no slaves

Another thing you need to check is who all was living near your person of interest in 1790.  This particular page was a goldmine of info.  Not only are there family members listed living in the area but there are households of people that migrated to Marion County, Mississippi along with the Perry family later down the line.  Being able to track families that migrated together will unlock many doors. Philip owning slaves or not (and the number of slaves) can give me a general idea of his wealth and land ownership. The demographic information becomes more useful as you are comparing censuses.  Here is the family in 1800:

Phillip Perry household2
2 free white males age 10 to under 16
1 free white male age 45 and over
1 free white female age 45 and over

  • Phillip Perry was alive on 04 August 1800
  • Phillip Perry was living in Fayetteville [Robeson County, North Carolina] on 04 August 1800
  • Phillip was born 1756 [this narrowed his date of birth considerably from the 1790]
  • Phillip was most likely married [wife born before 1756] and had two sons in the household.  The two sons listed are most likely the same sons listed in the 1790. I can now put their dates of birth between 1785-1790 which is a nice narrow range.
  • The assumed daughter that was listed in the 1790 is now gone.  She most likely married. You could check to see if any Perry females married in Robeson County between 1790 and 1800.
  • Phillip married before 1790 (based on the ages of the children)
  • Phillip had no slaves

I can’t analyze this page for neighbors because this census is a copy in which the names were put in alphabetical order.

I worked this family forward in time but you really need to work them backward in time.  If you are lucky enough to have a family in the 1850 and then work them backward you will be able to put some names to the children that have no names in the earlier censuses.  You can also use other documents to help put names to the nameless (marriage records, probate etc.)  It is like piecing a puzzle together and it is a lot of fun.

Here is an example of being able to identify people in a pre-1850 census by correlating all of the available records:

Silas Simmons3
2 free white males age 5 to under 10 [John and Benjamin]
1 free white male age 10 to under 15 [James]
1 free white male age 15 to under 20 [Abner]
1 free white male age 20 to under 30 [William]
1 free white male age 40 to under 50 [Silas]
1 free white female under 5 [unknown]
1 free white female age 5 to under 10 [Melinda]
1 free white female age 15 to under 20 [Nancy]
1 free white female age 20 to under 30 [Mary]
1 free white female age 40 to under 50 [wife Janet]

I have but one unknown child.  This child does not appear in the 1850 census.  It is possible that she married very young but it is more likely that she died.

Don’t discount the 1790 census as useless.  Not only can you glean important information from the census itself you will be able to deduce even more when you correlate the information with all of the other data you collect.

1 1790 U.S. census, Robeson County, North Carolina, p. 145 (penned), col. 1, line 12, Philip Perry household; digital images, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 11 Sep 2008); citing National Archives and Records Administration microfilm M637, roll 7. 

21800 U.S. census, Robeson County, North Carolina, Fayetteville, p. 411 (stamped), line 13, Phillip Perry household; digital images, Ancestry.com  (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 11 Sep 2008); citing National Archives and Records Administration microfilm M32, roll 32.

31840 U.S. census, Perry County, Mississippi, p. 180 (stamped), line 5, Silas Simmons household; digital images, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 12 Feb 2009); citing National Archives and Records Administration microfilm M704, roll 217. 

Copyright © 2013 Michele Simmons Lewis


  1. Be very careful here. Consider the description given by the Rev. Charles Woodmason of a typical family he encountered in the backcountry of South Carolina: "―There’s not a Cabbin but has 10 or 12 Young Children in it―When the Boys are 18 and Girls 14 they marry―so that in many Cabbins You will see 10 or 15 Children. Children and Grand Children of one Size―and the mother looking as Young as the Daughter." Now, think how a Census taker of 1790 would have enumerated that family.

    If you are fortunate enough to have solid evidence of the names & relationships of your early 18th century family, then mapping that back to the census numbers is possible, of course. But you should always remember that you are imposing correlation of a data source- the 1790 Census- that cannot confirm names & relationships. And, you are imposing a modern conception of "family" on people who lived min a time & place very different from ourselves.

  2. You are very right that the "family" unit could have many definitions, however, you have to make some basic assumptions and formulate a hypothesis. As new evidence comes in, you adjust your hypothesis.

    Here is an easier example, if you are looking at the 1850 census and you find this...

    John Smith, age 30
    Mary Smith, age 28
    David Smith, age 10
    James Smith, age 8
    Martha Smith age 6

    You do make the assumption that this is a husband, wife, and their children BUT this could easily be John's 2nd wife and none of these children are hers OR Mary might be John's unmarried sister who moved in to help him with the children when his wife died. You ALWAYS are thinking about other possibilities but you have to have a starting hypothesis. It remains a hypothesis until you have fulfilled the steps of the Genealogical Proof Standard.

  3. A conclusion from the Gen. Proof Process, or any other process of research, is only as certain as the source material used. It frustrates we moderns no end that the information sometimes isn't there, but so often it just isn't. And a hypothesis must remain a hypothesis forever unless there is reliable source data confirming it. And to the eternal frustration of the legions of family researchers both amateur and professional- myself included with respect to an upstate South Carolina family- the US Census 1790- 1840 have no relationship information.

  4. Yes, sometimes after you have followed the GPS to a T you still don't have enough information to state something with complete certainty. In those cases you have to state what you think but make it clear that you don't know for sure by using qualifiers. For example,

    I can say that James and Ellenor (Lee) Simmons married abt. 1787 in, most likely, South Carolina. I would qualify the date by stating that it is based on Ellenor being 18 at the time of her marriage. I would qualify the location by stating that known sons Silas and James were born in SC in 1794 and 1797, respectively. I would then of course give sources for that. This is the best I can do. I have been unable to find a marriage record and I have been unable to identify and possible older children that might narrow the marriage date down.

  5. Marriage records... in my paternal line, I have a marriage record from 1627. The next marriage record occurs in 1915. 288 years of 'relationship unknown'...

  6. Wow. That is just rotten luck. I have dealt with burned counties but 288 years worth of lost records? OUCH!