Genealogy: 1790 U.S. federal census tutorial

1790 MastheadBy Barry J. Ewell

This is a comprehensive tutorial for researching the 1790 U.S. federal census. You will be introduced to what I have used and shared with thousands to successfully find generations of family. Begin by learning how to use the census as a foundation to effective research, identify, map, and follow family through generations.

The tutorial will expand your knowledge and skills of how to conduct an exhaustive search to find genealogical and Family History records, repositories, resolve research problems and connect with resources researching similar lines.

The tutorial is divided into the following sections:

  • 1790-1940 U.S federal census resources
  • Introduction to 1790 U.S. federal census
  • Clues and lessons learned from 1790 U.S. Federal census
  • Military service and bounty land applications
  • Defining the U.S. federal census
  • Questions asked on the 1790 U.S. Federal census

1790 resources

Click on any of the following years and you will be taken to that years’ census tutorial:


  • U.S. census learning aids. Throughout the 1790 U.S. federal census tutorial find links to resources that I have specifically prepared to help you. In addition, I have written and assembled 190+ articles and resource aids to provide you a more in-depth understanding of the census research process.  I have tried to cover every possible question and angle that you are likely to face in your U.S. census research.  I would encourage you to use the resources often.  The category headings are as follows:
    • 190+ U.S. federal census articles and resource aids
      • U.S. federal census tutorials
      • Census and genealogy forms
      • Census research skills
      • Follow ancestors through the census
      • Researching names in the census
      • Defining ancestor age
      • Expanding census research to other resources
      • Expand your census research with military records
      • Census research best practices

1790 introduction

The 1790 U.S. Census is the first census authorized by the new U.S. government and was very narrow in the information being collected. The following are a few of the details that are important to understand about the 1790 U.S. Federal census:

1790 Census Map 2Number of persons included in the 1790 census excluding slaves: 3,231,533
Approximate number of heads of household listed: 540,000

Average size of family: 6
1790 census day:  August 02, 1790
1790 census duration: 9 months
1790 census geography:

  • States and territories enumerated:  14 states and three territories where included in the census.
  • New states: The newest state included the in 1790 census was Vermont.
  • Territories included: Northwest territory ( inc. the present day states Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Part of Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin), Southwest (tally only) (inc. present day Tennessee)
  • The available states include: Connecticut, Maine (inc. part of Massachusetts), Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Vermont
  • 1790 available census: Much of the 1790 census was destroyed in the War of 1812, some states totally, some states partially. Sometimes tax lists are available to help find the names of early residents.
  • Reproducing missing states. There are ongoing efforts to reproduce the 1790 Census for the missing states by using local county records. If you are researching in one of the missing states check for these reconstructed censuses such as with the Virginia where the “Heads of Household” was reconstructed from state 1785 and 1787 tax lists. Other reconstructions have been built from tax lists, oaths of allegiance, land entities, militia lists, petitions, road records, and other sources, though never as complete as censuses, can go far toward filling the gaps left by lost or destroyed census schedules.
  • The missing states have that have been reconstructed or in process include: DE, GA, KY (part of VA), NJ, TN (Part of Southwest Territory), VA, Delaware, Georgia, New Jersey, Virginia (The 1790 “Heads of Family” index names for Virginia come from the 1785 to 1787 tax lists of Virginia rather than the 1790 Census records which were lost)

A few interesting facts about the 1790 census include:

  • First census. The United States was the first country to call for regular census making the 1790 census the oldest national cenus1790-1840 censuses did not count Native Americans living on reservations or as nomad tribes.
  • No preprinted forms. 1790-1820 censuses did not have preprinted forms for the census takers to record information.  Each census taker was given sample copies and expected copy his census return on whatever paper he could find and post it in two public places.
  • Public hearing. 1790-1840 censuses were public meaning they were posted publicly so those included on the census could , if they could read, view and catch omissions and errors.
  • Pay rate. The highest rate of pay for a census taker was 2 cents per person, which in many cases barely covered expenses.
  • Vermont. Vermont did not become a state until March 4, 1791, so the state’s 1790 census was taken on April 4, 1791

1790 Clues
Too often I have seen genealogists overlooking the value of the 1790 census because they believe the limited information cannot be effectively used.  I have found just the opposite to be true. I would like to share with you a few of the ways I have used the information to extend and broaden my research and lessons learned along the way.

Defining the U.S. federal census. A census is a government-sponsored enumeration of the population in a particular area and contains a variety of information — names, heads of household (or all household members), ages, citizenship status, ethnic background, and so on. Here are some different types of census records you are likely to come across in your research.

Build a family profile. I make it practice to start with the information I already know or suspect about the family.  I refer to this as my family profile. The more you know, the more options you have of correctly identifying and connecting the family one generation to the next. The information I like to include in my profile include:

  • Names of known and/or suspect family members
  • Relationships of known and/or suspect family members
    • Father (i.e., fathers, step-fathers)
    • Mother (i.e., mothers, step-mothers)
    • Children (i.e., brothers, sisters, step-children, adoptions)
    • Brothers’/sisters’ –in-law and their spouses (i.e. persons married to grown children of the family)
    • Grandparents (i.e. fathers’ side, mothers’ side, step-parents side)
    • Siblings of parents and their families (i.e., fathers’ side, mothers’ side, step-parents side and the members of their households)
    • Neighbors (i.e. names, surnames and family members)
    • Group (i.e., this could members of organization, church, etc.)
    • Boarders (i.e., persons living in the household but not family members)
    • Servants/slaves (i.e., persons who are identified as servants/slaves)
  • List of surname and variations (example: Ewell, Uhl, Youile, Yull, Yule, Zuile)
  • Locations of where known and/or suspect family members (i.e., towns, regions, states)
  • Locations of known and variations of the family surname (i.e., towns, regions, states)
  • List of documents I already have organized in a timeline format

I realize this might be hard for the 1840 census, but it is possible to include names that you have found on documents such as wills, court documents, church records and so forth. Having an idea of counts can give you ideas for sorting out the number tallies that are given in the free male, free female, free others, and slave columns.

Having a portion of the above listed data will give you key data that you can use when searching online databases, microfilm and other resources.

Build a case for your family tree. The most important counsel I can give when using the 1790-1840 censuses is not to make any assumptions based on the data you find such as how big the family is by age and sex.  Use the information you find to build a case and then use other records to confirm and/or disprove what think is being presented about the family. Never ever run with you assumptions until they can be proved. I spent several years searching out someone else’s family unit that was not confirmed from the census data on 1790-1840’s. Of course it was my fault that I didn’t confirm the data before I started extending the research. Remember the data is based on all persons located in the home.  For example,

  • Don’t assume that the head of household is the oldest male, although it usually is.
  • Don’t assume, the oldest female is the wife of the head of household.  It could be a friend, neighbor, widowed sister or grandmother.  It could be even be a male who lost his wife and the females are his children.
  • Don’t assume that head of household is the first and only spouse. Are there different age groups for children?  This could mean the man married a younger wife and had children, married another woman and merged two family units together,  or even could be the male is taken care of deceased relative’s family.
  • Don’t assume that all the children in the home belong to the head of household.  The children could be his siblings who are now living with him after the death of his parents or children of a brother or sister.  The children could be those of friend who is away and just happen to be in their home during the time the census was taken.

Head of household.  The Head of household is the only name given.  All persons of the household (including head of household) are listed under the age and group categories as total numbers for each category.

  • Oldest person may not be head of household. The oldest person listed in the age groups may not have been the head of household. The individual could have been a parent or grandparent.
  • Identifying the right family group. You can use the head of household and the age groupings numbers to identify the right records of a family group and sort out records that might belong to head of household with the same name.  Caution; don’t discount a record that does not match up exactly to the head of household and category numbers. The listings included all persons in the home such as family, friends, neighbors, boarders, and visitors.
  • Information about women. Finding information about the woman will be hard if the man is still alive.
  • Junior and senior. During the 1800’s “Junior” (abbreviated as Junr. Jun, Jr) and “Senior” (abbreviated as Senr. Sen., Sr.) were used as nicknames when two men in the community had the same name.  Yes, John Jones Jr. could have been the son of John Jones Sr. or a John Jones, but I have learned it takes a little more confirmation with additional records before I make the link. Consider this, the older John Jones could have been a sibling, half-brother, cousin, uncle or not even related.
  • Same name. When you have heads of household with the same name, it can be confusing to know which one is your family.  In order to help sort out which one is your ancestor, you will need to have an idea when your ancestor was born and then compare ages through the various censuses.
  • Phonetically. Most census takers wrote the names of your ancestors (i.e., first and last) phonetically, meaning as they sounded.  As you search for your ancestor among the different census and records that were created during their lifetime, be prepared to see their name written differently in each record.  Make sure to record the variations in your profile. For example, my ancestor Maxcey Ewell could easily be written as Maxey Yule, Maxcy Yuille, Maxee Uhl.  Also consider situation where your ancestor or the census taker were foreign.  A German whose name was Braun could have had it spelled  Brown, Broune, Browne, or Brawn.
  • Free persons. Number of “other” free persons is a category which refers to nonwhite racial/ethnic groups.  Heads of households are named in this category

Finding names of women. There are few sources where you can search for women during this time period.

  • Head of household. Search the 1790-1840 censuses to see if she is named as head of household.
  • Military pensions. Search for military pension records from the Revolutionary War. Widows of soldiers have been eligible to receive the pensions of their husbands from the Revolutionary War forward.  Women could not join the military until 1890 as nurse so you will not find wills based on their service until after this date.
  • Finding wills. Searching for wills by a woman can be hit and miss.  If a woman died after her husband and remarried, changes are there is no will because all she owned when to her new husband.  However, If she was single when she died, there might be a will.
  • Church records. Search to see if church records exist for the community in this time period. Usually if you find them, start by looking for the person listed as head of household in categories of marriage, christening of children, baptism of children, death of family members, etc. You may be able to find the maiden name of the wife, if the witnesses are named in the marriage. If you find a first name for the wife, search all the first names in the church records to give you suspect families where she may have been a child.
  • Look for same names. If you are able to find the names of children associated with the male head of household, look for other heads of household in the area with the same first name.  Remember that children were usually given the name of parents.  Also look at the middle names of male children. The mother’s maiden name was often preserved in the middle name.
  • Bible records. If you are really lucky, you may be able to find bible records. For example, the Library of Virginia has a large collection of bible from the 17-1800’s.  I was able to locate a family bible that had been preserved this way.

Woman as head of household.  Finding a woman as a head of household 1790 to 1840 U.S. census usually means that she is a widow or the eldest daughter deceased parents. She may also be the head of household when the male is elderly or infirm (not physically or mentally strong.)

  • Surname. Use the surname of the woman to search for wills where she is named.
  • Remarriage. It was common when a woman remarried after the death of her husband, during this time period that all she owned when to her new husband.  This includes the land.
  • Pension records. Look for pension records from the Revolutionary war. Widows of soldiers have been eligible to receive the pensions of their husbands from the Revolutionary War forward.  Women could not join the military until 1890 as nurse so you will not find wills based on their service until after this date.

Age and family composition.  In the 1800 US Population Census, learn the approximate corresponding birth years associated with the age groupings provided.

  • Order. This census allowed 9 months to be completed.  The first family would have been recorded in August 2, 1790 and the last family on May 1, 1791. In the 1790 Census we only have age groupings for “For Free White Males.”
  • Tallies. There are columns for females, and slaves where only the totals are counted.
  • Slaves. Slaves where to be counted as 3/5th of person.  We are not sure that the number in the slaves category is actual slaves or the addition of 3/5th for each slave.
  • Category tabulation. Numbers shown in the categories include all persons who were in the home such  family, relatives, friends, employees, visitors, and boarders.
  • No children recorded after August 2, 1790. No matter when the census taker came, he was to record who was in the house as of August 2, 1790.  If a child was born after this date they were not to be counted.  If a person died before this date, they were not to be counted.  It is very probable the census taker just recorded who was there the day he arrived.
  • Ballpark. The age range provided in the categories only gives us a “ballpark” number.   The ball park figure is helpful in tracking the head of household from one census to the next especially if the name remains the same. We can also use the figure to help build an estimation of the family composition that needs to be confirmed with other records (e.g., church, wills/probate, land).
  • Family scenarios. You can use the age category to develop family scenarios about individuals who have died.  For example, as you move forward in the census, you may find the age of a spouse to be much older or younger such as in the case where a wife is too young for some of the children being listed.  You may find young children listed in one census and gone in the next census which could mean that the child is dead or living somewhere else during the census.  A death of male can give clues to search for a will/probate record.  If a female in an age bracket is missing, she could have died or married.
  • Moving backwards. When you moving backwards from one census to the next such as the1800 to the 1790 census, you can subtract 10 years and when you find the family you will be able to use the age groupings to give you the estimation of family composition. The same is true when moving forward in the census from 1790 to 1800.
  • 1800 census. Remember the 1800 U.S. Census expanded the age categories for male and females. You can use this census to help develop the family composition and distinguish between families with the same name.
  • Strategy. As you move forward and backward in the 1790-1840 censuses create a chart for the known and/or suspect families. Include the head of household, ages ranges by male and female with their estimated birth years.  See the article, “1790 U.S. Census birth year reference chart.” When you find the same or similar age ranges by male and female for all or partial members of the family, you have a much better chance of being focused on the right group.

Slaves. The slave category should not be overlooked.

  • Age groupings. Slaves appear in the age groupings by name of the owner.
  • Find clues about your ancestor’s financial standing in the community.  If the family had slaves, it could be a sign that they had more wealth then others in the community.  The more slaves a family owned, the wealthier they were.
  • Estate and tax records. The slave category can also provide clues that other records exist such as estate, property records and tax records.  These records many include the name and age of the slaves.

Other records created by ancestors. One of the most important questions, I have asked in my research is what records were created by individuals living in the area/location at the time my ancestors lived here?  The answer to the question provides me a list of resources that I will systematically search to confirm, disregards, and expand the data I find in the census. A good place to begin to find the records is to reach out to the historical/genealogical society for the state and county and ask for their guidance on records available.  Make sure you ask if the records have been digitized and where they can be found online or other means of accessibility in not digital.

  • For example, one of the more common census substitutes for the 1790 census are tax lists.  I have commonly found the tax lists to include all males over the age of 21 with information like whether they owned land, slaves, and other property. If I were looking for tax lists from Virginia online, I would construct a Google search query on Genealogy Virginia Tax Lists; Goochland County Virginia Tax Lists; and/or Goochland County Historical Society.

Using the 1790 U.S. census. The 1790 U.S. census only provides the name of the head of household and counts of persons who were in the home at the time the census was taken. I’ve effectively used the census to

  • Follow the family beyond before1850 census
  • Estimate family structure such as the number of persons by age and sex
  • Differentiate between families of the same name
  • Locate and identify possible children not listed in later censuses
  • Locate and identify possible neighbors who might be family
  • Locate and identify possible parents
  • Follow the family before the 1790 census into Colonial records
  • Locate and identify family in other census substitute records

Remember that the 1790 U.S. Census by itself is limited but when combined with other censuses and records, you now have a body of information and knowledge that have the ability to give a good overview of the family.

1790 Military
Military service and bounty land applications. Search for military records from the Revolutionary War for the head of household.  Even though there is no information in the 1800 census that identifies the man as being in the war, it is still worth your time to look.  Search for pension applications and records of pension payments for veterans, their widows, and other heirs. The pension applications usually provide the most information and can include supporting documents such as marriage, birth, and dead records/certificates, pages from family Bibles, family letters, dispositions of witnesses, affidavits, discharge papers and other supporting documents. Even if you ancestor did not receive a pension, look to see if his pension request was denied.

Bounty land applications also are related wartime service. The federal government provided bounty land for those who served in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, and Indian wars between 1775 and 1855. Bounty lands were offered as incentive to serve and as a reward for service. Bounty land was claimed by veterans or their heirs. The federal government reserved tracts of land for this purpose. The states of New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia also set aside tracts of bounty land for their Revolutionary War veterans. See the article:

If you ancestor served in the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, early Indian Wars or the Mexican War, searching these records can be fruitful.  The bounty land records contain documents like those of the pension files.  Many of the bounty land application files of the Revolutionary War and War of 1812 service have been combined with pension files. Federal bounty land applications and warrants for the Revolutionary War have been microfilmed. They are available at the National Archives, its regional branches, and through the Family History Library system.

1790 defining

Federal census records provide the building blocks of your research, allowing you to both confirm information and to learn more. Compiled in the United States for every decade since 1790, census population schedules are comprehensive, detailed records of the federal government’s decennial survey of American households. Information from the schedules is used by the federal government for demographic analysis.

The schedules themselves, of interest primarily to genealogists, contain the personal information of the survey respondents. To protect the privacy of the people whose names appear in each schedule, census records are restricted for 72 years after the census is taken and are not available to researchers during that time.

1790 questions

The following are the questions found on the 1790 U.S. Federal Census:

Col. 1: Names of the Heads of Families
Col. 2: (Line name is recorded on)
Col. 3: Professions & Occupations
Col. 4: Number of House or Store
Col. 5: Dwelling

Col. 6:  (Number of) Males—Of sixteen years and upwards including heads of families (16+)
Col. 7: (Number of) Males—Under sixteen years (0-15)
Col. 8: (Number of) Females including heads of families

Col. 9: (Number of) All other free persons
Col. 10: (Number of) Slaves

Col. 11: Total
Col. 12: Remarks