The 1820 US Federal Census — A Closer Look

The 1820 US Federal Census — A Closer Look

The 1820 US federal census is the last one to not use pre-printed forms. Because enumerators often drew their own columns, it can sometimes be challenging to interpret the results of this census. However, the effort is worth it for genealogists. Here is what you need to know about the 1820 US federal census.

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The 1820 US federal census was the fourth one the US government conducted. It included populations from six states that were not yet states in the previous census. These new states were Louisiana, Mississippi, Illinois, Alabama, Indiana, and Maine. Enumeration of this census began on August 7, 1820. Like the three censuses prior to it, there have been some significant record losses over the decades with this census. The 1820 US federal census is currently missing records for New Jersey, as well as the territories of Arkansas and Missouri.

The 1820 US federal census determined the population of the United States at this time to be about nine and a half million people. Of these, about a million and a half were slaves. The center of population of the United States was in Hardy County, Virginia, which is now West Virginia.

This particular US federal census was the first one to record a state as having a population of more than a million people. In fact, there were two states with a million-plus population in this census — New York and Pennsylvania. This census was also the first to record a US city with a population of more than one hundred thousand — in this case, New York City. Baltimore was recorded as the second-most populous US city in this census — its first time achieving this position.

The act of Congress that authorized the 1820 US federal census was enacted on March 14, 1820. This act required the new census to be more detailed in its population-related questions than in previous censuses. It was also the first one to require enumerators to ask if respondents were engaged in manufacturing, commerce, or agriculture.

Beginning on the first Monday of August in 1820, the census was authorized with a six month enumeration time; however, this time ended up being extended by another seven months, to September 1, 1821. Assistant US marshals were required, as with previous censuses, to visit every house that had someone living in it, or, barring that, the head of every family within their designated enumeration districts.

There were assistants to the marshals in each district. The job of these assistants was to collect data in the district related to manufacturing, and then send it to the marshals who supervised their districts. The marshals then sent this information to the Secretary of State, along with the population returns for their district. The manufacturing data was intended to be compiled into a nationwide manufacturing report. However, the results were not summarized in each district, which meant the information that was aggregated and released to the government was based on incomplete returns. This is blamed on the same factor that caused the same issue in the previous, 1810 census — poor training of enumerators.

At the time of the 1820 census, the art of taking a census was not yet perfected. Prior to 1830, for example, there were no pre-printed forms for the enumerators to use. This meant many of the enumerators drew their own. This meant that some of the pages in the 1820 US federal census do not have headings, column totals, line tallies, or anything else that would make them make sense in context with other census pages. The absence of pre-printed forms in the 1820 and earlier censuses makes the enumeration of many towns to be quite idiosyncratic, and down to the individual style of each enumerator. This does not mean this census and earlier ones are less reliable with their information than later ones. However, it does mean that interpreting the results may take more work on the part of a researcher. Results on each page on this census need to be examined closely, and compared to results from the same region from other censuses in order to extract truly useful information from it.

The questions that were asked on the 1820 US federal census include:

  • The name of the head of the household
  • The number of free white males in a household under the age of ten
  • The number of free white males in a household aged ten to sixteen
  • The number of free white males in a household aged sixteen to twenty-six
  • The number of free white males in a household aged twenty-six to forty-five
  • The number of free white males in a household aged forty-five and up
  • The number of free white females in a household, in the same age groups as the free white males
  • The number of un-naturalized foreigners in a household
  • The number of people in a household engaged in agriculture, commerce, and/or manufacturing
  • The number of male slaves in a household, in the same age groups as white men
  • The number of female slaves in a household, in the same age groups as white women
  • The number of free African-American men in a household, in the same age groups as white men
  • The number of free African-American women in a household, in the same age groups as white women
  • The number of all other people not otherwise categorized in a household, except Native Americans who were not taxed

Some of the columns on this census were for “special counts,” which were not supposed to be included in the aggregate total of the published information. Including information from these special columns in the aggregate total would have made some people be counted twice, such as the column for free white men between the ages of sixteen and eighteen, which was a special column. It was a special column because the men in this column were supposed to be tabulated in the “ages sixteen to under twenty-six” column, as well.

The columns for un-naturalized foreigners, people engaged in agriculture, people engaged in commerce, and people engaged in manufacturing were also special columns.

The census enumerators were also given instructions to count each individual person in only one of the three available occupation columns. So, if someone was engaged in agriculture, commerce, and manufacturing, the census enumerator could only choose one and had to decide, based on the information given by the individual, which occupation was the primary one.

Download the 1820 Census Blank Form to help you in your research.


About the author

Ancestral Findings

Will founded Ancestral Findings in 1995 and has been involved in genealogy research for over 24 years. The excitement begin when he started investigating the meaning of his Moneymaker surname.