Marty & Karla Grant

Race and Ethnicity on the Census

Home > Genealogy > Reference > Census > "Race Codes"

"White", "Black", "Mulatto", "Indian", "Free Colored", etc.

In the 1700's and early to late 1800's the Federal Government seemed to only recognize four "races": White, Black, Mulatto and Indian. Later they added categories for "Chinese" and in more recent years they have added many more.

The race codes used on the census were almost always based on the census takers opinion. He probably didn't ask the family what race they considered themselves, though that may have happened some.

(W) White generally meant a person of European origin with lighter skin color. The main columns of data on the 1790 through 1840 census records were for "Free Whites." In 1850 and later census records, "White" people had a race code of "W" in the "Color" column (or left blank in 1850 and 1860).

(B) Black generally meant a person of African origin with darker skin. In the early days most blacks in America were held in slavery, though not all were. The 1790 through 1840 census included columns for "Slaves" as well as columns for "Free Colored" (or "Other" in 1790). In 1850 and later census records, "Black" people were listed with a race code of "B" in the "Color" column or "N" in some cases for "Negro."

(M) Mulatto generally means a person of mixed race, part black and part white, technically 50% of each meaning one black parent, one white. Of course the term was also applied to people who weren't "half and half" but had some degree of African ancestry as determined by skin color.

In the early years of the census there were not enough race codes to cover every possible race. Therefore many people were listed as "Mulatto" who were of some other origin besides part black and part white. Keep in mind that those listed as Mulatto could be mixed Black-White, White-Indian, Black-Indian, or a combination of all three (Black, Indian and White, also called "Tri-Racial"). This doesn't even account for those who might be dark skinned but of some other origin (Melungeon, "Black Dutch", North African Moors, Sephardic Jews, Middle Eastern, Asian, etc.). As you can imagine, this was a "catch-all" category on the early census records.

In 1790, any free person considered "Mulatto" or "non white" would have been listed in the "Other" columns. In 1800 through 1840, they would have been included in the "Free Colored" columns. In 1850 and later, they would have been listed with a race code of "M" in the "Color" column.  In many cases you'll find these same people listed as "White" on some census records, so it makes you wonder what the census taker based it all on.

(I) Indian refers to those Native Americans or aboriginal peoples who were in America prior to the European and African arrivals. The Federal Census records included very clear instructions that Indians were not to be listed, and in most cases that was followed. Some early census takers (in 1850 in Western North Carolina for example) made exceptions, and listed Indians under race code of "I" or "In" or "Ind."  Later census records included special schedules just for Indians. You will not find Indians listed on the 1790 through 1840 census, though you might find some who were part-Indian. If they were listed at all those years, they would be in either the "White" columns, or in the "Free Colored" columns depending on the whims of the census taker.

"Free Colored" was used as a category on the 1790 through 1840 census (listed simply as "Other" in 1790). As I mentioned above under the "Mulatto" section, "Free Colored" could mean almost anything. The census taker used his own discretion to determine who fit in this category, so it is hard to say what the dividing line was between "White" and "Colored" in his mind. A "Free Colored" person could be a black person who was not a slave, or it could be person who had some African ancestry and some European, or it could be someone of some other origin, but who had dark skin or in some other way did not fit the census takers idea of what "white" was. Here are some possibilities for identities of "Free Colored" persons in these records:

If you look around America today, you see a large portion of the population is of Hispanic origin, i.e. originating from Spanish speaking regions of Central and South America or the Caribbean. Many of these have darker skin, and if any of them were here in the 1790-1840 timeframe perhaps they too were included in the "Free Colored" columns.

I don't think there were many people of Asian origin here in this timeframe, but I would wager that they too would have been put in the "Free Colored" columns. The "Chinese" category was not added until 1870. Presumably other Asians were included here whether Chinese or not.