Museum Blog

The Census and Representation

The census has occurred every decade since 1790 but the first censuses were very skewed towards white males. The first census did not ask for any names except the head of the household, generally assumed to be a white male. The number of free white males over 16 and the number of free white males under 16 were also asked, which gauged the county’s military potential. For the rest of the population, a simple count was considered sufficient. The next census in 1800 tallied free white males and females into age categories of under 10, between 10-15, 16-25, 25-45, and over 45. However, all others who did not fit those two categories were not separated into age groups. It wasn’t until 1850 that each free person’s name was to be listed along with the head of household.

Despite the census designed to collect a population count to decide how many seats each state receives in the U.S. House of Representatives, it wasn’t a true count for many years. Enslaved people were only counted as three fifths of a person due to the Three-Fifths Compromise between the Northern and Southern states. It benefitted the Southern states to count their enslaved population as the higher count would give them more seats and more political power. The Northern states argued that enslaved people could not vote or own property so therefore should not be counted. Ultimately, even the delegates who opposed slavery ignored their moral objections to keep the states unified and it was agreed three-fifths of the enslaved population would be counted.

As slavery became illegal after the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, many formerly enslaved persons names appeared on the 1870 census for the first time. Even that census was fairly skewed with the only options for race listed as White, Black, Mulatto, Chinese, and Indian. Mulatto was a category on the census from 1850-1890 and again in 1910 and 1920. Definitions of this varied between censuses and enumerators until it was finally removed after 1920. Up until 1970, enumerators decided what race was noted on the census, not the respondents. It wasn’t until the 1960 census that people were finally able to choose what race they wanted listed on the census, though only one could be marked. People were told to mark what race they most closely identified with. In 2000, census respondents were finally able to mark more than one race category.

American Indians were generally not included on the early censuses as they were considered to live in separate nations. According to the National Archives, instructions for 1860s enumerators regarding American Indians are as follows: “Indians not taxed are not to be enumerated. The families of Indians who have renounced tribal rule, and who under state or territory laws exercise the rights of citizens, are to be enumerated.” The 1870 census was the first to list Indian under race classifications but there had been American Indians enumerated in 1860 as well. According to the United States Census Bureau, an enumeration of all untaxed American Indians under the jurisdiction of the United States was made in 1880. These counts are notoriously inaccurate as American Indians and Alaska Natives are the most undercounted in the U.S. Census. In 2010, they were undercounted by 4.9 percent.

There is also distrust of the census because it has historically been used against many tribes, especially when it comes to blood. In the 1930 census, enumerators were instructed to note blood quantities of full blood, ¼ or more Indian blood, and less than ¼ blood. If the respondent was regarded as white in their community, the enumerators were to denote them as such. This can have long reaching consequences according to Jen Deerinwater of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. American Indians who were part of two tribal nations were often listed only on one roll which impacted future generations. Deerinwater states her blood quantum is registered with the Bureau of Indian Affairs as one-eighth which has an impact on her ability to gain tribal citizenship.[1]

Throughout the history of the census, bias towards women is also represented. Until 1850, women’s names were rarely listed unless they were a widow because only then were they considered the head of household. When occupation began to be asked by enumerators, many enumerators did not ask married women if they had an occupation because there was an assumption they would simply be “keeping house”. Even married women who did work often neglected to mention their participation of paid labor due to societal norms that dictated a wife’s place was in the home.[2] This historically led to an undercount of women who held jobs. Even when women did inform enumerators of employment, between 1910 and 1940, their instructions were to question the accuracy of unusual occupations for women but not the men.[3]

In fairness, something regarding women and the census needs to be noted. Women have been employed by the Census Bureau as enumerators since 1880 when trained enumerators rather than U.S. Marshals were used. According to the Census Bureau, by 1909 over 50 percent of the 624 permanent employees were women. The first five female supervisors and three female expert chiefs of divisions in the bureau had been appointed by 1920. During the 1910 census in Fremont County two women were appointed enumerators, Miss Lula Lines and Miss Winifred Hoeyer, according to the Cañon City Record on May 19, 1910.

Over the years the census has improved. From not counting a large portion of the population to finally allowing people to choose their own identity, the census has strived to gain a better count of the population each year. As with anything, there is always room for improvement.     


[1] Jen Deerinwater, “Paper Genocide: The Erasure of Native People in Census Counts,” Rewire.News, 9 Dec 2019, https://rewire.news/article/2019/12/09/paper-genocide-the-erasure-of-native-people-in-census-counts/.

[2] Marjorie Abel and Nancy Folbre, “Women’s Work and Women’s Households: Gender Bias in the U.S. Census”, Social Research 56, no.3 (Autumn 1989): 551.

[3] Abel and Folbre, “Women’s Work”, 553.

Works Cited

Abel, Marjorie and Nancy Folbre. “Women’s Work and Women’s Households: Gender Bias in the U.S. Census.” Social Research 56, no. 3 (Autumn 1989): 545-569.

Deerinwater, Jen. “Paper Genocide: The Erasure of Native People in Census Counts.” Rewire.News, 9 December, 2019. https://rewire.news/article/2019/12/09/paper-genocide-the-erasure-of-native-people-in-census-counts/.

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