The 1790 census was the 1st Census of the United States. The data collected by the census takers was not comprehensive, but it is of great value to researchers. They obtained the name of each "Head of Household", and then a numerical enumeration of all of the other family members by age and sex.
Only the head of each household was listed by name, everyone else was only included by category. This means that you can't view the 1790 census and immediately know who everyone in each household was. However, you can use the data and compare it to data obtained from other records, and analyze the numbers and make educated assumptions about who was in the family. Of course, this is a hit and miss proposition with varying degrees of success.
For example, consider the household of a fictional "John Smith". He was listed with one male over age 16, two males under 16, and 3 females. From this we can assume that he was the male over age 16, and that the two males under 16 were his sons, and that the three females were his wife and two daughters. However, while this is often a safe assumption to make, it is quite possible that one of the 3 females could be his widowed mother, or perhaps all three are his sisters. From this record alone, it can not be positively determined who was who in a 1790 census household. However, if you have a family bible record showing that John Smith had two sons, one born 1780, and another born 1785, then you can be reasonably sure they were the two boys with him in 1790. If the bible record also shows he had two daughters, one born 1782, and another born 1789, then you can be fairly sure they are two of the three females with him in 1790, and the other one is probably his wife. As you can see it takes some analysis to figure out how to interpret this record.
The 1790 census was taken state by state, and county by county, and in some cases the counties were further divided by districts (such as townships, companies, etc.). Some records were left in the original order the census taker visited each household, whereas others were alphabetized before being turned in. The ones in original order are very useful to determine who a persons neighbors were. If you see three Smith families listed side by side, you can reasonably assume they are somehow related.
The 1790 Census is the most simple of all the Federal Census Records in that it only contains six columns of data (seven if you count the page number as a column). I will explain what each column represents in detail below.
The census was "as of" 2 Aug 1790, meaning all data collected (even if collected months after that date) was supposed to reflect the families condition on 2 Aug 1790, meaning all ages were to be listed how they were back on August 2nd, even if it was three months later when the census taker asked. It isn't know if the census taker adhered to this rule or not, but that is what they were supposed to do.
The "page number" that I use on my published census abstracts are from the 1908 published version of the 1790 census, and not from the original microfilm records.
1790 Census Columns:
- Name of Head of Household. This is usually the husband. If a woman is listed as head of household, she was usually a widow, or a single mother, or a single person raising younger siblings.
- Number of Free White Males 16 years old and upward. (Born before ca 1774).
- Number of Free White Males under 16 years old. (Born ca 1774/1790).
- Number of Free White Females. Females were lumped into one category with no age distinction. (Born before 1790).
- Number of Other Free Persons. Non "White" persons (other than slaves) were lumped together in this column with no age or sex distinction. These persons were not considered "White" (in the census takers opinion, anyway). See my pages on Race Codes for more about these "Free Persons of Color". Normally, these are not Indians (Native Americans), as they were not supposed to be listed at all on the census. However, they could be those of mixed Indian heritage.
- Number of Slaves. All slaves were lumped together into this one column with no age or sex distinction.