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The first one, that is

Have you, as a genealogist, offered up your most sincere thanks to the members of the United States Congress?

1Stat101The Legal Genealogist has — a statement that may surprise those of you who’ve managed to figure out that this distinctly apolitical writer isn’t entirely fond of those who inhabit the halls of the Capitol building these days.1

But I have indeed offered up my most sincere thanks to the members of the United States Congress.

The members of the first United States Congress.

The ones that passed the Act of 1 March 1790.

The Act entitled: “An Act providing for the enumeration of the Inhabitants of the United States.”2

The very first United States census act.

It was enacted 125 years ago this month (edit: 225 — never was very good at math…), and provided in part

That the marshals of the several districts of the United States shall be, and they are hereby authorized and required to cause the number of the inhabitants within their respective districts to be taken; omitting in such enumeration Indians not taxed, and distinguishing free persons, including those bound to service for a term of years, from all others; distinguishing also the sexes and colours of free persons, and the free males of sixteen years and upwards from those under that age;3

Every person who was a member of a family was supposed to be counted in that family, even if he wasn’t at home when the census takers arrived to take the count.4 There was supposed to be a separate column for those who lived in a particular district but didn’t have a settled place of residence.5

Every person over the age of 16 was legally required to cooperate with the census taker, and “obliged to render … a true account, if required, to the best of his or her knowledge, of all and every person belonging to such family…”6

Census takers were to be paid at the rate of one dollar for every 300 persons in the cities and one dollar for every 150 persons in the countryside.7 But if the population was really thin, then more could be paid but not more than one dollar for every 50 people.8

The chief census taker in each district was to be the U.S. marshal, and he was to file the returns on or before the first of September, 1791.9 Their pay for this ranged from a low of $100 in the district of Delaware to a high of $500 in the district of Virginia.10

Now this wasn’t exactly a charitable act, and it wasn’t for the benefit of future generations of genealogists. The United States Constitution provides that

Representatives and direct taxes shall be apportioned among the several states which may be included within this union, according to their respective numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole number of free persons, including those bound to service for a term of years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons. The actual Enumeration shall be made within three years after the first meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent term of ten years, in such manner as they shall by law direct.11

But because of that method of apportioning the members of Congress and beginning with the statute of March 1790, we as genealogists can celebrate the census.

So go thank the United States Congress.

The first one.


  1. Yeah, yeah, I know. I’ve made such a secret of the fact that today’s politicians of all stripes annoy me right down to my toenails. Sigh…
  2. “An Act providing for the enumeration of the Inhabitants of the United States,” 1 Stat. 101 (1 March 1790); digital images, “A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875,” Library of Congress, American Memory ( : accessed 11 Mar 2015).
  3. Ibid., §1.
  4. Ibid., §5.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid., §6.
  7. Ibid., §4.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid., §3.
  10. Ibid., §4.
  11. Article I, §2, Constitution of the United States.
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