Excerpt from the 1790 US census. Red boxes outline John and James Harrod
Genealogy Research,  How To Trace Your Family Tree

A Close Up Look At The 1790 Census

Learn everything you need to know about the 1790 census, the first US census. This blog post covers the census data, columns, categories, information, interpretation, analysis, and tips.

Finding James Harward in the 1790 census was such a thrill for me. You see, James is one of my favorite ancestors. I know, I know! You are not supposed to have just one favorite ancestor, but I do.

The Harward family line was one of the first family lines I traced back as a new genealogist. You could say I “cut my genealogy teeth” on that Harward (Howard) family line.

When I hit that 1790 census, I realized I needed to understand it as a record source BEFORE I tried to understand James Harward’s appearance in it.

That 1790 census challenged me at first, but eventually shed light on the young James Harward family.

1883 photos of couple. Woman standing on left resting arm on seated man. Red block with white text reading A close Up Look at the 1790 Census

Why the 1790 Census Was Taken

A Little History First

Prior to the 1790 census, the population of the United States and its distribution was not accurately known. In order to determine the tax burden for each state, Congress mandated the first U. S. census to be taken in 1790.

Marshals in each judicial district were responsible for collecting the census data. Each household was  required to be visited and at its completion, the census was posted in 2 public places to be viewed by the citizens. The census was then sent to the president – George Washington. [Get more out of your census research by exploring Census.gov.]

Sample of 1790 census list for Wake County, NC

The Official Census Day

The official census day was 2 August 1790. The census takers had 9 months to complete their task.

Which States Were Included?

Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Vermont were included in the census. A couple of special notes to be aware of:

  • Vermont was established in March 1791. A special statute established taking the census there in 1791.
  • People living in the District of Columbia were enumerated in the Maryland counties of Montgomery and Prince George.

Unfortunately, not all of that original 1790 census survived and is available to genealogy researchers. {Sigh….} Census schedules for Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, New Jersey, Tennessee, and Virginia did not survive.

What did that first census reveal?

One of the first things you will notice as you start your research into the 1790 census is the headings. They are handwritten – and  difficult to read.  Sometimes the column headings were only written on the first page. This was not a pre-printed form. The census taker created the form as part of the process. [Learn how use photo editing software like Vivid-Pix Restore or the website PicMonkey can help you read “hard to read” documents.]

Genealogy Tip: Have a blank 1790 census form beside you to refer to during your census analysis. This will make your census analysis go smoother. Blank forms can be found at Ancestry.com  (free) or the National Archives site (free).

The headings for the 1790 census record were:

Familiarize yourself with the column headings before you start:

  • Head of household
  • Free white males 16 years and upward
  • Free white males under 16 years
  • Free white females
  • All other free persons
  • Slaves

Your Ancestor in the 1790 Census

First impressions are important. Look at the census page for you ancestor as a whole. Does anything stand out? Are the listings alphabetized or not? Why is this important?

If the names recorded are not alphabetized, you are looking at your ancestor’s neighbors. The census taker went house to house and recorded the families in order of his visit. 

Keep in mind the “neighbors” may not have been next door neighbors. That census taker may have zigzagged back and forth across the road to be more efficient. Perhaps the census taker had to back track if no one was home on the first visit. Regardless, you will get a sense of the neighborhood.

Looking for my ancestor James Harward, I noticed the census taker alphabetized by the first name! That’s a bit unusual, but it happens. (James and John were common first names!) Usually, if a list is alphabetized, it is done by the surname.

So, unfortunately, I cannot infer James’s specific neighbors.

Listing from the 1790 census with red arrow and text reading "alphabetized by first name"

Your Ancestor’s 1790 Census Enumeration

1790 census with "James Harrod" in red box

James Harward is found on the 1790 census  in Wake County, North Carolina as “James Harrod”. Obviously spelling is was fluid and prone to many variations. Be open to a variety of  spellings of your ancestor’s name.

The Harward/Harrod household included:

  • 2 free white males under 16
  • 1 free white male over 16  [This would be James.]
  • 2 free white females. [One female would be Rosannah, James’s wife.]

This is a young family of 5, but who are those  unnamed  males and females?!  While the 1790 census does not provide the names everyone, research into a Family Bible, wills, estate records can establish who the other family members are.

1790 census with "James Harrod" in red box

Even though this particular census record is alphabetized by first name, looking at the other entries revealed James was living close to his brother John Harrod and a brother-in-law Joseph Barbee.

1790 census with "James Harrod" in red box and John Harrod in red box

Had I not known the relationship of these men to James, I would have made note of other  Harwards/Harrods in the census and researched accordingly. Additionally, knowing James Harward’s wife was Rosannah Barbee, I would also make note of Barbee families in the area as well.

Where to Find Census Records

Census records are common genealogical records to search and readily available. Sources for census records include:

Learn more about using census records in your genealogy research in these related posts:

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