444px-George_Pomut_1860_US_Census,_Decatur,_Iowa

Strutting our Colonial Stuff: Census Records Before 1790

It’s a simple fact that the vast majority of genealogical data on the Internet pertains to 19th and 20th-century ancestors. Why? Most of this data is easier to come by than the genealogy of the colonial period because (1) much of it is within the recall or possession of living relatives; (2) the records (particularly federal census records from 1850 onward) have survived and are detailed; and (3) the records are relatively simple to read and transcribe.

Genealogists with 17th- or 18th-century ancestors will be glad to learn that throughout its more than 50-year history, the Genealogical Publishing Company (and affiliate Clearfield Company) has built its publishing program around colonial (and pre-colonial British, Irish, German, and Huguenot) records and compiled genealogies. Of the roughly 2,000 titles currently available on our web site, probably 90% of the contents predate the election of President George Washington in 1788, which fact brings us back to the topic of 17th- and 18th-century censuses.

In discussing colonial enumeration records it is important to emphasize that they were not administered on an imperial basis; rather they occurred randomly, more or less to meet the local needs of the Crown or a colony–to raise a militia, administer an oath, collect taxes, and so on. If these records did survive, their survival was fortuitous at best. None of which makes them any less important to 17th- or 18th-century researchers.

For a sampling of census or “surrogate” census publications (tax lists, militia lists, etc.), just click on the link here.

Image credit: George Pomut 1860 US Census, Decatur, Iowa, via Wikimedia Commons.

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