The 1790 US Census

The 1790 US census was taken as of August 2, 1790. It revealed that there were nearly 4 million people in the US and the western territories. 

Of that number, about 19 per cent, or approximately 760,000, were of African American descent.  Not surprisingly, 90% of African Americans were located in the southern US.

The Native American population was not counted.

Farming was the main occupation.

What was happening in the US in particular, and in the world in general, during this decade?

People and Issues in the 1790s

During the 1790s, the following men were US Presidents:

George Washington (1732 - 1799) was President from 1789 - 1797.  Prior to that, he had served as the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army in the American Revolutionary War

John Adams (1735 - 1826) was President from 1797 - 1801.  Prior to that, he had served as Vice President under George Washington.

During this decade, an outbreak of yellow fever occurred in Pennsylvania (1793), resulting in the deaths of 5,000 people.

In February 1791, the Bank of the United States was founded, with a goal of regulating the currency

1793 was the year that Eli Whitney developed the cotton gin (a machine which cleaned cotton), which revolutionized the cotton industry. 

This led to cotton becoming the main crop in the US South, and to an increase in the need for more cheap labour - i.e., more slaves - to process the crops.

Again in 1793, the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in the US.  In the same year, Upper Canada made slavery illegal.

In 1798, the US Navy Department was founded.

King George III, circa 1781

Public Domain

On the international stage, King George III was the reigning member of the royal family in Britain, from 1760 - 1820.

In France, the French Revolution began in 1789 with the fall of the Bastille on July 14. 

In 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte staged a coup, as a result of which he was instituted the Premier Consul (First Consul) of the French Republic in November of 1799.

In Europe, various wars were fought, many of them involving Napoleon and his armies.  He had a vision of a united Europe, under his rule.

What States were Included in the Census?

The following states and territories were included in the 1790 US census enumeration.  As the map reveals, much of the West was still divided into territories:







North Carolina

New Hampshire

New Jersey

New York


Rhode Island

South Carolina

Vermont *


South West Territory

* Vermont's census was done as of April 4, 1791, since it did not become a state until March 4, 1791.

What Questions were asked on the Census?

The 1790 US census asks for the name of the head of household; the number of free white males, divided into 2 age categories; the number of free white females; the number of other free persons; and the number of slaves. Naturally, the town and county are also recorded.

The actual contents of the 1790 US census were as follows:

  1. Names of heads of families;
  2. number of free white males under age 16, and over age 16;
  3. number of free white females, including heads of families;
  4. number of other free persons; and
  5. number of slaves.

When Congress passed a law in 1830 requiring that all US census documents from 1790 to 1830, then held by the clerk of the district court in each area, be gathered in a central location, it was discovered that about 1/3 of the 1790 US census documents were lost or had been destroyed. Only one copy of each page had been made, so there was no back-up copy.

Virginia was particularly affected by the loss.

Some attempts have been made to reconstruct the missing pages from other documents available from this time period. Those most heavily relied upon were the tax documents.  Given the contents of the census documents, and the fact that heads of households also were likely the ones who had to pay taxes, it is highly probable that the reconstruction is quite accurate.

To see a blank sample of the 1790 US census, click here.

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