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by William Dollarhide


If you are a genealogist, you are an avid user of the federal censuses, 1790 to 1930. But even experienced census users may not know about some of the obscure aspects of the censuses. Here's one of them. It's called the "census day."

Beginning with the 1790 federal census--and continuing with every census thereafter--each enabling law authorized by Congress specified a "census day" for gathering the census information from every household in America. From 1790 to 1820 the census day was the first Monday in August.

The census day was NOT the day the enumerator arrived at a household; it was the day for which all the statistics of the census were collected. The instructions given to all the U.S. Marshals just prior to the 1820 census explain:

"All the questions refer to the day when the enumeration is to commence, the first Monday in August next. Your assistants will thereby understand that they are to insert in their returns all the persons belonging to the family on the first Monday in August, even those who may be deceased at the time when they take the account; and, on the other hand, that they will not include in it infants born after that day."

Similar instructions have been given for every census since 1790, but with different census days. The table below shows the census day for each census, 1790 to 1930, and the time allowed to take the census:

Census Year / Census Day / Time Allowed

1790 / 2 August / 9 months
1800 / 4 August / 9 months
1810 / 6 August / 10 months
1820 / 7 August / 13 months
1830 / 1 June / 12 months
1840 / 1 June / 18 months
1850 / 1 June / 5 months
1860 / 1 June / 5 months
1870/ 1 June / 5 months
1880 / 1 June/ 1 month
1890 / 1 June / 1 month
1900 / 1 June / 1 month
1910 / 15 April / 1 month
1920 / 1 January / 1 month
1930 / 1 April / 1 month

1820 & 1830 Census Day Differences:

On the above table, note that the census day changed in 1830 from the first Monday in August to the first day of June. If one is researching families appearing in the 1820 and 1830 censuses, looking at these families again may be important. Since the census days for 1820 and 1830 are not exactly 10 years apart, the two-month difference may reveal some surprising results.

For example, if a person were born between 1 June 1820 and 7 August 1820, that child would appear in the 1820 census in the "under 10" age category. But in 1830, that same person would appear in the "of 5 and under 10" rather than the "of 10 and under 15" age category, since the person had not yet turned 10.

The age category for anyone born between 1 June and 7 August in any year would be affected by this reporting change between 1820 and 1830. Comparing the 1820 age categories for a person appearing 10 years later and not in the "correct" age category may actually give a clue to a person's date of birth within a two-month period.

Time Allowed to Take a Census:

On the table above, note the time allowed to take each census. All of the states complied with this provision, except South Carolina in 1790. South Carolina could not complete its 1790 enumeration in nine months. The U.S. Marshal complained that he was having great difficulty finding people to take the job because of resistance to the census being taken. A Charleston jury met to decide the fate of six persons who had "refused to render an account of persons in their households as required by the census act." A South Carolina census taker was brought on trial for neglect of duty because he did not complete the census in his district. These and other problems led to South Carolina being granted an extension, and the census returns were dated 5 February 1792, a full 18 months after the census day.

Differing Census Days:

In a couple of cases, there have been census days assigned to certain states that were different from the rest of the U.S. for that year. When Vermont entered the Union as the 14th state in 1791, the 1790 census was already underway. Vermont's 1790 census was taken with a census day of the first Monday in April 1791, with five months allowed to take the census there. Utah, which became a territory in September 1851, had its 1850 census taken with a census day of 1 April 1851. But the dates on the Utah census pages are mostly in October 1851. Thus, the 1851 census enumerators probably asked Utahans questions like, "Six months ago, back on April 1st, who was the head of this household?"

Census Day Versus Enumeration Date:

Genealogists should record two dates when copying information from the censuses: the census day and the enumeration date. No matter how many months it took for an enumerator to reach a house, he was supposed to gather the information as if time had stopped on the census day. Every person whose regular abode was in a particular household on the census day was to be enumerated, even if a person was away at the time of the enumeration.

Understanding the impact of the census day versus the enumeration date may explain why certain people appear in a census listing, even though you have other evidence to show the person died before the household was enumerated. If a person was alive on the census day, that person was to be included--even if it took some time for the enumerator to get around to that house to take the census. The person could have been dead for several months.

Or, you may wonder why that youngest child in a family was not listed in a census. If a child were born after the census day, that child was not to be included--even if the census taker had visited the house and was aware of a playful little toddler crawling around in front of him.

Now, some of you will want to go back to all of those census lists you have copied down and confirm the date of enumeration AND the census day. Any missing people? Any extra people?

Good census hunting!