The United States Constitution set forth the provision for enumerating the population of the country, directing that representation in the House of Representatives would be allocated as a result of a decennial enumeration of the population. As a result, using the U.S. census gives us a treasure-trove of information for genealogical research.
The first census was enumerated in 1790. The directions to the enumerators provided that free persons should be counted separately from others “distinguishing also the sexes and colours of free persons.” It also directed that free males of sixteen and upwards be distinguished from those under sixteen. This resulted in six questions for the first enumeration: the name of the head of household, number of free white males under 16 years of age; number of free white males of 16 years and upward; number of free white females; number of other free persons; and the number of slaves. The reason for differentiating the ages of the males is clear: to have an accurate count of men who could be put to military service for the fledgling country.
In addition to looking at the population schedules, be certain to look for non-population schedules. Information on agriculture, manufacturing, and more can be found. You can also find questions on the health and well-being of residents, such as whether or not they were blind or deaf, or had mental impairments. Sometimes these questions are buried in the population schedules. For example, the 1820 census included a question asking the number of persons (including slaves) engaged in agriculture, commerce, and manufactures. Unfortunately, many of these non-population schedules were destroyed after they were tabulated, without being microfilmed.
Sometimes when looking for people, they may not be exactly where you think they should be. One of my colleagues told me the story of one of his ancestors who lived in a town in Franklin County, Massachusetts. The land records were there, the town and vital records show he lived there, and all evidence points to his living in that town. Unfortunately, he doesn’t appear in the census there, but in the town next door, which is in Worcester County. The answer was discovered only once he visited the property. His ancestor’s farm was separated from the rest of the town by a mountain. Clearly the enumerator in Franklin County asked the Worcester County enumerator to tabulate the family so he could avoid a long trip around the mountain. If you find similar problems, look a topographical map of the area to see if your solution is also similar. And to find out more about the census, visit census.gov/history.