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The concept of collecting census data has been around for thousands of years. It was a census that brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem when Jesus was born. But it wasn't until the United States declared its independence and became its own country that counts were taken so consistently, or census records so well maintained.
There are many uses for census data, but the primary purpose for the creation of the US Federal Census was for tax and representation reasons1. Congress mandated a decennial population count in order to determine how to tax each state. But the data has found many other helpful uses.
Population changes and migration patterns can be mapped based on census records. I'm sure it wouldn't surprise anyone to hear that New York City has been the most populous urban US city on every census since 1790, but the rest of the list has seen some major differences. In 1790, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania was in second place with 28,522 people, but falls to fifth place in 2000 with one and a half million people! There are cities in the 2000 census that did not exist in 1790, like Dallas, Chicago, Los Angeles and of course, Forney. But ironically, one of the two cities that tied for 10th place in 1790 - Southwark, Pennsylvania - doesn't exist today. What is interesting to research is how historical events affect the population densities of different areas of the United States. After railroads reached the west cost, and the Gold Rush fever brought people out, San Francisco hit the population list in just a few short years and by 1900 was in the top ten. Between 1860 and 1870, several cities in the south dropped off the top 100 cities rankings completely, I'm sure as a direct result of the Civil War.
Although not very accurately, census records have shown ethnic population changes. Not accurately because of the way blacks were counted in the decades since the first census, and the lack of counts for other racial groups at the time.
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"Demographics in Census Data from 1790 and 2000." 123HelpMe.com. 24 Jan 2020
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I have been searching through census records for years but never really took the time to study them thoroughly until recently. As more census data gets transcribed and indexed on the Internet, I have looked closer into what they have to offer and how to use the information they have. Prior to 1850, though, the information was slightly helpful, at best. Listing only the head of the family by name, and the rest of the family as a checkmark under an age group, it is difficult to discern between several people that have the same name. And if there is no prior knowledge of that ancestor's family members, it can be next to impossible. The 1790 Census was like this. Can you imagine how hard it is to research a John Taylor in Virginia in the late 17th century? Luckily, there were other collections and records available that answered many of my questions and helped me narrow down which John Taylor was my ancestor. Records such as marriage and death records, wills, court documents, and church membership lists are still surviving today. Thankfully, someone woke up in 1850 and started tracking each family member by name, age and birthplace (too late for my John Taylor though). Every decade since the forms have added and updated questions that has helped genealogists open doors to their past. Just don't mention the 1890 census to a genealogist unless you want to see them cry - the majority of that census was destroyed in a fire.
I think by far the most interesting thing to see in the census records are the occupations. Most of my family were farmers, but as I'm reviewing the sheets looking for relatives, I have come across some of the most intriguing jobs. One lady in England was listed as a "Bleeder with Leeches." There was a Thomas Bastard who was a Revenue officer (how appropriate). I found a man in Kentucky who admitted his occupation was "catering to wife!" And I'm not sure what a Jimple Fitter is, but there was one in England in 1901. The 1790 census didn't have occupations listed, but I'm sure it would have been interesting to take a virtual walk through New York City and see all the jobs people did back then. And because it takes 72 years to make a census available to the public for research and viewing for privacy reasons, I will not be around to see the information in the 2000 census. I can only sit back and anxiously await the release of the 1940 census in 2012!
1 The American Promise, p. 296
2 "Finding Your African American Ancestors" by David Thackery
3 U.S. Census website - American Factfinder: http://factfinder.census.gov/servlet/DTGeoSearchByListServlet?ds_name=PEP_2004_EST&_lang=en&_ts=147911240328