The U.S. census has also become a valuable historical source for people interested in demography, economic statistical analysis, local history, and personal history. The Constitution requires a population count every ten years to determine the number of representatives from each state in the U.S. House of Representatives. Beyond specifying that every free person be counted as a single individual and every enslaved person be counted as 2/3 individual, the Constitution offered little guidance regarding the amount of information that should be recorded in the decennial census. Its form reflects the social, economic, and political concerns of each era of U.S. history.
In all of its permutations, the population schedules of the manuscript census have been a record of household residence. That is, census takers have been required to record information on each individual household by visiting or contacting each domicile. Genealogists use these records to identify their families and gather information such as names, sex, age, skin color, occupation, property holdings, place of birth, and place of residence on each individual family member. The regularity of the census enables researchers to explore migration patterns, economic mobility, and the impact of life cycle events such as births, marriages, and death. Researchers interested in individuals should beware of inconsistencies. Census takers often made mistakes in the spellings of names, ages, and skin color.
The 1800 census was the first to include the District of Columbia. The amount of information taken on each household and individual varied over time. There was considerably less information on enslaved people than free people; their names were not listed in any of the censuses taken before the Civil War.
Researchers should be aware of the following features of the census:
For a more detailed description of the information taken at each census, researchers should consult Measuring America: The Decennial Censuses from 1790-2000. This census publication provides the instructions given to census enumerators each year, often explaining how to standardize occupational descriptions and fields developed to measure the impact of immigration. There also are special instructions for Native American peoples.
The manuscript censuses dated after 1950 are not available to the public for study. The Census Bureau closes them for 72 years. The 1950 census will be opened during 2022. Nearly the entire 1890 population schedules were destroyed in a fire.
The National Archives and Records Administration is the repository for the federal census. The manuscript copies of the free and enslaved populations are available on microfilm. Archivists will make original manuscripts available only if pages are illegible on microfilm.
The D.C. Public Library holds microfilm copies of the District of Columbia.
The National Archives has partnered with Ancestry.com and HeritageQuest to make the population schedules of the census between 1790 and 1940 accessible to libraries and individuals with subscriptions. Most researchers search these records using an individual's name with filters using information recorded in other fields by the census taker, such as jurisdiction, other household members, occupation, and nativity. It is also possible to browse through census pages for the subdivisions, a good option for researchers interested learning more about a specific neighborhood.
The D.C. Public Library database subscriptions include Ancestry Library edition and HeritageQuest that is available to library card holders. (All Georgetown students and D.C. residents can apply online for a card number).
City directories are a valuable tool for researchers interested in creating maps showing residential patterns, buildings used by businesses and communal institutions, and individual residents. Since they are listed in alphabetical order, they can also help researchers interested in supplementing the biographical data found in the census or other records. A typical entry of each resident lists the head of household, occupation, and address. In addition, researchers will find listings for municipal and federal officials, information about the city government, churches, markets, banks, and other associations in the District of Columbia.
The city directories were not uniform over the years. The biases of the compilers were often reflected in the listings. The directories also reflected changes in the geographic and political organization of the District of Columbia. Researchers should consider the following:
Google Books, HathiTrust, and the Internet Archive host city directories in their digital repositories. Matthew Gilmore has compiled a list of these reproductions, which includes directories compiled between 1822 and 1923.
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