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Article by Myra Vanderpool Gormley, CG

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Los Angeles Times Syndicate, 1989

Myra Vanderpool Gormley is a certified genealogist, syndicated columnist and feature writer for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate and has written more than a thousand articles on the subject of genealogy. She is editor of RootsWeb Review.


Names found in 1790 census: Links to the past

By Myra Vanderpool Gormley, CG

When the first census of the United States was taken in 1790, the machinery of our federal government had just been constructed, but many of our ancestors had already been here for five or six generations. At that time Congress consisted of 91 members — 26 in Senate and 65 in House of Representatives, the numbers specified by the Constitution — pending the enumeration of the inhabitants of the states.

In 1790 the United States consisted of 13 states with Vermont being the first addition, admitted in 1791, before the first census had been completed. The gross area of the United States at this time was 820,377 square miles, but only about 29 per cent of it was settled.

The practice of making periodic censuses or enumerations of population is of comparatively recent origin. Except in Sweden, where a count of inhabitants had been made at stated intervals since the middle of the 18th Century, with its first complete enumeration done in 1748, accurate and periodic enumerations of populations were practically unknown until the 19th Century. The first census of our country preceded those in France and Great Britain by 11 years.

While enumerations of populations, more or less accurate, were made in nearly all the northern colonies during the Colonial period — and several states took one or more censuses during the Continental period — the necessity for a national census, comprehending all the states, became apparent early in the Continental period. Two-hundred years ago, the taking of the First Census of the United States brought home to each citizen the practical operation and influence of our newly adopted Constitution.

For genealogists, the 1790 federal census is an important source for clues as to where their early American families lived and additional statistics about them. If you can locate your families in the first census, chances are also good that some of your ancestors participated in the Revolutionary War, and that you descend from some early American lines.

That first census (from the states for which that schedule still exists) reveals there were about 27,337 different surnames. Estimates are that the entire number of surnames in our country at that time did not much exceed 30,000 — with most of them being English and Scottish. Many of the surnames that appear in 1790 census probably have passed out of existence because people tend to avoid and change peculiar ones, especially those that can be ridiculed. Many given names, which appeared frequently in the 17th and 18th centuries, and even in the early part of the 19th century, have become obsolete. Our names, particularly given names, have always followed popular trends.

Some unusual and amusing (at least to our 20th-century ears) combinations of given and surnames noted in the 1790 census are:

Anguish Lemmon, Mercy Pepper, Pleasant Basket, Cutlip Hoof, Hardy Baptist, Truelove Sparks, Snow Frost, Mourning Chestnut, Boston Frog, Jedediah Brickhouse, Hannah Petticoat and Hannah Cheese, Ruth Shaves, Christy Forgot, Joseph Came, Joseph Rodeback, Agreen Crabtree, River Jordan, Booze Still, Comfort Clock, Sharp Blount, Sarah Simpers, Barbary Staggers, and Noble Gun.

However, while genealogists researching their early American lines often chuckle upon finding an ancestor with a "funny" name, they soon learn that their family tree contains many names — surnames as well as given names — that fall into this category.

The most common surnames found in the 1790 census are: Smith, Brown, Davis, Jones, Johnson, Clark, Williams, Miller and Wilson. These nine names alone represented about four percent of the total white population at that time. Another interesting fact has been discovered about the names that appear in that first census: Few middle names or initials occur, suggesting that this naming custom did not gain popularity until sometime after the beginning of the 19th century. The Declaration of Independence was signed by some of the most distinguished men of the period — and one assumes they would have signed their complete names — yet, on this famous document only three signatures appear with middle names: Robert Treat Paine, Richard Henry Lee and Francis Lighfoot Lee.

Those who have seriously studied the names upon the schedules of the first U.S. census are impressed by the fact that a large proportion of the total number are derived from common nouns or other parts of speech related to the daily affairs, occupations, events and surroundings of the individual and the community.

Of the approximately 30,000 different surnames found in these records, 9.4 percent were derived from parts of speech. Many surnames of 1790 fell into the following general classes: Household and domestic affairs — food and eating, drink, clothing and sewing material; nations and places; human characteristics; games, religion, music and literature; property; nature; ocean and maritime subjects; war; death and violence; time; and some unusual and ludicrous combinations of common nouns and of given names and surnames:

Under the household and domestic affairs category appear surnames such as: Soup, Oyster, Trout, Pork, Lamb, Stew, Quail, Goose, Tripe, Tongue, Kidney, Ham, Eggs, Olives, Mustard, Vinegar, Onions, Pancake, Jam, and Pepper. From drinks were: Brandy, Goodrum, Redwine, Punch, Freshwater, Beer, Booze, and Wine.

Surnames related to clothing are: Petticoat, Bloomer, Redsleeves, Feather, Highshoe, Jumpers, and Boots; to sewing materials: Linen, Silk, Lace, Mendingall, and Patching.

Nations and places included such surnames as: England, Ireland, Hungary, Germany, Holland, Spain, Poland, Athens, Boston, Canada, Bohemia, Venice, Parliament, Paradise and Bedlam.

Human characteristics: Tidyman, Biters, Fakes, Boor, Crook, Outlaw, Goodfellow; Short, Barefoot, Dumb, Howling, Mauldin, Toogood, Witty, Underhand, and Toobald.

Surnames that fall into a category of ailments and remedies are: Fatyouwant; Boils, Measles, Ache, Cough, Quack, Salts, and Pill. From games, religion, music and literature were such surnames as: Dance, Waltz, Preacher, Church, Steeples, Bell, Sinners, Music, Fiddle, Fife, and Jingles.

Property and related terms pertaining to kind of house and building material and belongings, furniture and tableware, merchandise and commodities provide many interesting surnames, such as: House, Brickhouse, Oldhouse, Halfacre, Gable, Plank, Kitchen, Stable, Barns, Warehouse, Wharf, Platter, Forks, Saucers, Stove, Wood, Cowhorn, Gravel, Hornbuckle, Pencil, Rags, and Whips.

There are surnames connected to money such as: Dollar, Shilling, Nickels, Pence, and Money. Colors were represented by such names as: Black, White, Gray, Green, Brown, Red, Ruby, Pink, Purple, Seagray, Lavender, Blue, and Scarlet.

Objects of nature or feature of landscape obviously provided the locality surnames of: Mountain, Lakes, Meadows, Bridges, Bogs, and Pool.

For some additional fascinating information and statistics on this subject consult "A Century of Population Growth, 1790-1900," originally published by the Bureau of the Census, and reprinted by Genealogical Publishing Co., 1001 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, MD 21202.

The microfilm publication (M637) of the National Archives of the original 1790 census schedules includes inhabitants in Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Vermont. The schedules for Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, New Jersey, Tennessee (then known as Southwest Territory) and Virginia are missing, as are the North Carolina counties of Granville, Caswell and Orange. However, reconstructed schedules for Delaware, Kentucky and Virginia have been prepared from state and local tax lists, with Delaware and Kentucky reconstructions considered fairly complete, but Virginia's includes only 39 of the 80 counties that were enumerated. Georgia, New Jersey and Tennessee lists, using other records to reconstitute the missing censuses, are also considered incomplete.

The original extant 1790 schedules were printed by the Bureau of the Census in 1907-08 and have since been privately reprinted. Most of the printed 1790 censuses (arranged by states) can be found in libraries, state archives, historical societies and at the National Archives and its field branches.

Using the 1790 census can help genealogists discover the variant spellings under which their ancestors' surnames may appear in other records. For example, the surname of Morgan is also listed as spelled Maughan, Maughon, Morgain, Morgen, Morggen, Morgin, Morgon, Moughan and Moughon.

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