The Records Were Burned... Were They?
By Sue Powell Morgan ©1998
Often when making an inquiry about the location of certain records we are told that "they were destroyed in a fire". Undoubtedly, there have been many fires, especially in county court houses, town halls and a host of others, which have destroyed many valuable records. However, fire has been given far too much credit for the destruction of many of our country’s records. There are more records still extant and available than most of us are aware.
A good example of this is found in the records of Adams County, Ohio. It has been widely published in the past that a fire in the courthouse in 1909 destroyed most of the county’s early records. It is true that a fire occurred that year. However, most of the records were not burned! The Deeds were not destroyed. The early marriage records had been recorded in the Deed Books. They have since been extracted and published separately.
The early Adams County, Ohio records in the courthouse when the fire started were saved. They were pulled out of the fire and dumped into several large wooden boxes where their existence remained generally unknown for almost seventy years. These records date back to the origin of the county. Many, including voter lists, probate records and other valuable documents are still intact.
One of the most famous, and widely published stories of burned records, is the myth that the early U.S. Federal Census Records were destroyed in Washington DC when the British burned the city in 1812. Only statistical information compiled from the censuses of 1790, 1800 and 1810 was actually housed at the country’s capital in 1812. What happened to the original early censuses if they were not destroyed in 1812? To answer this question, an understanding of the laws regarding the disposition of the original censuses is necessary.
During the second session of the First Congress, an act dated March 1, 1790, was passed requiring a Marshall to be appointed for each state to see that a population enumeration was taken. The Marshall was empowered to appoint as many Assistant Marshalls (census enumerators) as necessary to carry out the provisions of the 1790 Act.
The task of taking the first census was to begin on the first Monday in August 1790 and was to be completed within nine months. To avoid the problem of making an inaccurate census of a moving population and to avoid enumerating families more than once if they moved, the original act provided that persons were to be listed in the division where they live on the first day of August 1790.
Any person over the age of 16 years could provide the family information to the census taker, but if one gave a false account they could be fined $20.00. This was a large sum of money in that day.
In the first Census of 1790, the Marshall was responsible to learn the number of inhabitants in each district. He was to distinguish between the free population (which included indentured servants or those bound out for a term of service) and the slave population. Indians not taxed were to be excluded.
Difficulties began immediately with the taking of the first censuses due to the fact that a great majority of the population lived in rural areas. Large numbers of people were migrating south and westward. The Census Enumerators had to travel long distances through forests, swamps and in areas with few roads and bridges. Many families were not enumerated at all.
In other instances, difficulties between the white population and the Native Americans made it impossible to travel through hostile areas to get to some settlements. The U.S. Military did not escort Census takers through these areas. It is known that a large percentage of the population was not included in the earlier censuses due to various circumstances.
Some people were inclined to be cautious about giving information to "the government." Others totally refused to provide information for fear of higher taxes if they revealed too much of their personal business. Religious grounds were also used to withhold information. Some religions such the Quakers thought they might be required to serve military duty. They believed this would cause divine displeasure. Numerous questions came up as to civil boundaries which in many cases were unknown or not defined at all.
The thirteen original states were enumerated between August 1, 1790 and March 1, 1792. Present day Maine was at that time part of Massachusetts. Virginia included all of present-day Kentucky. Alabama and Mississippi were part of colonial Georgia. Tennessee was included in the boundaries of North Carolina.
The Northwest Territory was organized in 1787. It included the present-day states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and parts of Minnesota. With the exception of an area of Ohio, little effort was made to enumerate the Northwest Territory in 1790 or 1800.
Vermont was given an extension until the first Monday in April 1791 to begin taking its first census. This was to be completed within five months. South Carolina was given until March 1, 1792 to take its first census. Rhode Island had not accepted the Constitution by March 1, 1790 and was not part of the Union. A few months later, on July 5, 1790 Rhode Island joined the Union and a census was taken of her inhabitants.
After completing the census, the census takers were to make two additional copies of the returns for their Districts. These were to be posted in public places for the public to inspect. Corrected returns were to be given to the State Marshalls. The Marshalls were then to compile a statistical report to be sent to the President of the United States on or before September 1, 1791.
The original returns were deposited with the clerks of the U.S. District Courts in their respective states with instructions to carefully preserve them. The two copies (which had been posted for public inspection) remained either with the State Marshalls or other state or county officials. Some of the extra copies may have been destroyed in the courthouses in fires or later wars. Others possibly succumbed to poor storage conditions, age, and deterioration.
On March 28, 1830, eighteen years after the British burned Washington DC, Congress enacted a law which for the first time, required the "Federal" copies to be moved from the U.S. District Courts to the LIBRARY OF CONGRESS. The States were given until the first Monday in August 1830 to complete the transfer.
In 1907, Congress ordered the Census Bureau to publish and offer for sale the 1790 census schedules. Some of the censuses that were supposed to be deposited in the Library of Congress in 1830 were missing. They were probably not sent there from the state U.S. District courts.
The loss of the Virginia enumerations for 1790 and 1800 is very unfortunate. The Census Bureau found several incomplete tax records and state censuses for 39 counties for the years 1782-1786. A partial index was published by the Census Bureau under the title, Heads of Families at the First Census-1790-Virginia.
State returns for at least 38 other counties were missing in the above publication. It is estimated that over 50% of Virginia’s heads of household were not included in the Virginia substitute list of 1908. In recent years, others have published more complete tax lists of residents living in Virginia shortly before 1790.
Augusta B. Fothergill and John Mark Naugle published the Tax Lists for the missing counties under the title, Virginia Tax Payers, 1782-1784. Another important list was compiled by Ronald Vern Jackson titled, Virginia 1790 Census Substitute, (Taken From Tax Lists). One should always consult the 1908 publication as well as the above publications for a more complete listing of Virginia residents during this time period.
No attempt was made by the Census Bureau to reconstruct a substitute population schedule for 1790 Georgia, Delaware or New Jersey. Tax lists for Georgia were very incomplete for the time. A list of about 15,000 Georgia residents were published in Early Tax Digests of Georgia by Ruth Blair. Ronald Vern Jackson compiled substitute censuses for 39,050 Georgians in his book titled, Georgia, 1790-1800-1810 Census Substitute. Another 1790 substitute titled The Reconstructed 1790 Census of Georgia: Substitute for Georgia’s Lost 1790 Census was compiled by Marie De Lamar and Elizabeth Rothstein.
A substitute for the Delaware 1790 Census was compiled by Ronald Vern Jackson and published by Genealogical Services titled Delaware 1790 Tax Lists Index. Leon De Vallinger published Delaware Tax Lists in the National Genealogical Quarterly, 1948, beginning with Vol. 36, and subsequent volumes.
New Jersey’s tax lists for a hundred year period between 1772 and 1822 by Ronald Vern Jackson is published by Genealogical Services. This four-volume set, New Jersey Tax Lists contains 3,744 pages and 299,465 names. Of interest are the 1793 tax lists in these volumes. There is also a ‘military census’ titled Revolutionary Census for New Jersey, 1773-1784, by Kenn Stryker-Rodda, which is helpful.
Kentucky became a state in 1792 and was enumerated with Virginia in 1790. Attempts were made to compile an index to households in the Virginia area that later became Kentucky. A small book titled, The First Census of Kentucky, was compiled by Charles B. Heinemann. A more complete list of Kentucky residents of 1790 by Ronald Vern Jackson is titled, Kentucky Census Index Substitute, 1790. This is a compilation of indexes to tax lists 1788, 1789, 1791 and 1795.
Tennessee belonged to North Carolina and the Southwest Territory in 1790. There are only a few good tax lists in existence for that time. These are printed in Mary Barnett Curtis’s, Early east Tennessee Tax Lists and Petitions which cover the years 1788-1823 and Pollyanna Creekmore’s, Early East Tennessee Tax Payer.
A few early censuses believed to be destroyed have since been found. Some of the Districts may not have complied with the requirement to send their censuses to the U.S. District Courts in 1791. These probably remained with the Marshalls or were left in state or county repositories. Since there were two additional copies made of the original 1790 censuses it is likely they still exist somewhere. Perhaps they are in a county courthouse or other repository.
The myth that the early Federal Censuses were destroyed when the British burned Washington DC in 1812 is incorrect. These various acts of Congress indicate the Federal Censuses were in the custody of the U.S. Federal District Courts in their respective states until 1830! Contrary to popular belief, only the statistical information taken from the original 1790 returns was housed in Washington DC in 1812 when the city was burned. So, where are the missing original records now? If you are aware of the location of any unpublished county, state or federal census records, tax lists, etc., please contact Genealogical Services.
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