Instructions for the 1820 US census

The 1820 census was the fourth decennial census undertaken in the United States. It was the first one in which Maine was a separate state; previously Maine was a province or district of the state of Massachusetts, and it had just gained statehood that very year, 1820. Like previous US censuses, this one was a head of households census, listing the names only of persons who headed households.

The 1820 census asked for the same information as the previous censuses in 1800 and 1810, that is, the number of persons in each households by sex and by five age categories, although adding a separate category for free white males between the ages of 16 and 18. It also asked for separate numbers for free colored persons in four age categories for each sex, and also for the number of slaves (which was not an issue in Maine, which had been admitted as a free state).

The 1820 census also asked about the number of "foreigners not naturalized." For Madawaska it is not clear exactly how this was determined. Persons who were from Lower Canada (Quebec) seem to have been counted as foreigners. But also included in that category are some people who had been born in raised in the Madawaska settlement. My guess is that it came down to whatever response the individuals gave to the census taker; how they decided to declare themselves as foreigners or US citizens is unclear. Given the fact that this area was at the time a disputed region, residents may have been uncertain as to their fate.

Here is a description of the census from the publication Measuring America (full cite below):

The fourth census was taken under the provisions of an act of March 14, 1820. The enumeration began on the first Monday of August, and was scheduled to conclude within 6 calendar months; however, the time prescribed for completing the enumeration was extended to September 1, 1821. the 1820 census act required that enumeration should be by an actual inquiry at every dwelling house, or of the head of every family within each district. (p.130)

The instructions below are not the complete instructions; for example, not included is whether copies should be made and where they should be deposited. We know that at least one copy, possibly the original, was to be deposited with the Federal Court for the District of Maine.

The source of these instructions is a publication of the US National Archives and Records Administration, Measuring America: The Decennial Censuses From 1790 to 2000. Publication no.POL/02-MA (Washington: US Dept. of Commerce, April 2002).


The interrogatories to be put at each dwelling house, or to the head of every family are definitely marked in relation to the various classes of inhabitants discriminated in the several columns of the schedule, by the titles at the head of each column. That of the name of the head of each family, must indeed be varied according to its circumstances, as it may be that of a master, mistress, steward, overseer, or other principal person therein. The subsequent inquiries, How many free white males under 10 years there are in the family? How many of 10 and under 16? etc., will follow in the order of the columns. But, to facilitate the labor of your assistants, a printed list of all the interrogatories for enumeration, believed to be necessary, is enclosed; (No.5) in which 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. This, though not prescribed in express terms by the act, is the undoubted intention of the legislature, as manifested by the clause, providing that every person shall be recorded as of the family in which he or she shall reside on the first Monday in August.

It will be necessary to remember, that the numbers in the columns of free white males between 16 and 18--foreigners not naturalized--persons engaged in agriculture persons engaged in commerce persons engaged in manufactures must not be added to the general aggregates, of which the sum total is to be opposed. All the persons included within these columns must necessarily be included also in one of the other columns. Those, for instance, between 16 and 18, will all be repeated in the column of those between 16 and 26. The foreigners not naturalized, and those engaged in the three principal walks of life, will also be included in the columns embracing their respective ages. In the printed form of a schedule herewith enclosed, the description at the top of these columns is printed, in italics, and the division lines between the columns themselves are double ruled, with a view to distinguish them from the other columns, the sums of which are to go to the general aggregate. In preparing their schedules from this form, your assistants will find it useful, for convenience and accuracy, to distinguish those columns, by ruling them with red ink, or in some other manner, which may keep them separate from the others, by a sensible impression constantly operating upon the mind.

The discrimination between persons engaged in agriculture, commerce, and manufactures, will not be without its difficulties. No inconsiderable portion of the population will probably be found, the individuals of which being asked, to which of those classes they belong, will answer, to all three. Yet, it is obviously not the intention of the legislature that any one individual should be included in more than one of them--of those whose occupations are exclusively agricultural or commercial, there can seldom arise a question, and in the column of manufactures will be included not only all the persons employed in what the act more specifically dominates manufacturing establishments, but all those artificers, handcraftsmen, and mechanics whose labor is preeminently of the hand, and not upon the field.

By persons engaged in agriculture, commerce, or manufactures, your assistants will understand that they are to insert in those columns, not whole families, including infants and superannuated persons, but only those thus engaged by actual occupation. This construction is given
to the act, because it is believed to be best adapted to fulfill the intentions of the legislature, and because, being susceptible of the other, it might be differently construed by different persons employed in the enumeration and thus destroy the uniformity of returns, essential to a satisfactory result.

Besides this enumeration of manufactures, the marshals and their assistants are required, by the tenth section of the act to take an account of the several manufacturing establishments and their manufactures, within their several districts, territories, and divisions; and the meaning of the legislature, by this provision, is illustrated by the clause in the oaths of the marshals and assistants, that they will take an account of the manufactures, except household manufactures, from which it seems fairly deducible, that, in the intention of the legislature, persons employed only upon household manufactures are not to be included in the column of persons bearing that denomi nation, the occupation of manufacturing being, in such cases, only incidental, and not the profession properly marking the class of society to which such individual belongs.

This then, offers a criterion by which your assistants may select the column of occupation to which each individual may be set down; namely, to that which is the principal and not the occasional, or incidental, occupation of his life.

The more particular the account of manufactures can be made, the more satisfactory will the returns prove. Among the papers enclosed is an alphabetical list of manufactures (No.6), which may facilitate the labor of your assistants, but which they will not consider as complete. It is intended merely to give a direction to their inquiries, and each of them will add to it every manufacture not included in it and of which he takes an account within his division. A printed form (No.7) is likewise enclosed, of inquiries to be made in relation to manufacturing establishments, on a sheet of paper, upon which the information requested may be written and returned. In every case when it can be conveniently done, your assistant will do well to give this form to some person principally concerned in the manufacturing establishment, requesting him to give the information desired himself.

The execution of the fifth section of the act requires the further interrogatories, whether any person, whose usual abode was in the family on the first Monday of August, 1820, be absent therefrom at the time of the inquiry made: and, if so, the sex, age, color, and condition, of such person are to be asked, and marked in the proper column, in the return of the family. It follows, of course, that any person who, at the time of taking the number of any family, has his usual abode in it, is, nevertheless, not to be included in the return of that family, if his usual place of abode was, on the first Monday of August, in another family. The name of every person having no settled place of residence, is to be inserted in the columns of the schedule allotted for the heads of families in the division where such person shall be on the first Monday of August.

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Last revised 10 Jul 2003