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Thursday, 13 March 2008

The U.S. Census: Whats it all about?

Censuses had been taken prior to the Constitution's ratification; in the early 1600s, a census was taken in Virginia, and people were counted in nearly all of the British colonies that became the United States.

Down through the years, the country's needs and interests became more complex. This meant that there had to be statistics to help people understand what was happening and have a basis for planning. The content of the 10 yearly census changed accordingly. In 1810 the first inquiry on manufactures, quantity and value of products; in 1840 on fisheries were added, and in 1850, the census included inquiries on social issues, such as taxation, churches, pauperism and crime. The censuses also spread geographically, to new States and Territories added to the Union, as well as to other areas under U.S. sovereignty or jurisdiction. There were so many more inquiries of all kinds in the censuses of 1880 and 1890 that almost a full decade was needed to publish all the results.

For the first six censuses (1790-1840) enumerators recorded only the names of the heads of household and did a general demographic accounting of the remaining members of the household. Beginning in 1850, all members of the household were named by the enumerator. The first slave schedules were also done in 1850, with the second (and last) in 1860. Censuses of the late 19th century also included agricultural and industrial schedules to gauge the productivity of the nation's economy. Mortality schedules (taken between 1850 and 1880) captured a snapshot of life-spans and causes of death throughout the country.

The first nine censuses (1790-1870) were not managed by the Executive Branch, but by the Judicial Branch. The United States Federal Court districts assigned U.S. marshals, who hired assistant marshals to do the actual census-taking.

The census records and data specific to individual respondents is not available to the public until 72 years after they were taken . Every census up to 1930 is currently available to the public and can be viewed on microfilm released by the National Archives and Records Administration, the official keeper of old federal census records. These census records are also available online from various sources such as Ancestry.comwhich charges a subscription or, which is available for free. Check out the sidebar for more links for the U.S. Census.

The 1940 census will be available for public review in 2012.