Understanding the 1870 Census Questions

The 1870 census commenced on June 1, 1870, and was taken under the provisions of the census act of May 23, 1850. 12

The Secretary of Interior appointed General Francis A. Walker Superintendent of the Ninth Census on February 7, 1870. Although the 1870 Census was under the 1850 act, a new bill approved on May 6, 1870, made the following changes:

  • The marshals were to submit the returns from “schedule 1” (free inhabitants) to the Census Office by September 10, 1870. All other schedules were to be submitted by October 1, 1870.
  • The 1850 law authorizing penalties for refusing to reply to the inquiries was expanded to apply to all inquiries made by enumerators.

Redesigned schedules used for 1870 and the omission of a “slave” schedule made possible several additional inquiries as follows:

  1. General Population Schedule. This schedule collected data from the entire population of the United States.
  2. Mortality. This schedule collected data on persons who died during the year. In addition to the 1860 inquiries, inquiries were modified to include Schedule 1’s additions to collect data on parentage and to differentiate between Chinese and American Indians. Inquiries concerning “free or slave” status and “number of days ill” were discontinued.
  3. Agriculture. The 1860 inquiries were used with additional requests for (1) acreage of woodland, (2) production of Spring and Winter wheat, (3) livestock sold for slaughter, (4) total tons of hemp produced, (5) total wages paid, (6) gallons of milk sold, (7) value of forest products, and (8) estimated value of all farm productions.
  4. Products of Industry. Using the 1860 schedule as a basis, additional information was requested on (1) motive power and machinery, (2)12 Although a Congressional committee stated that the 1860 Census had been “the most complete census that any Nation has ever had,” it was recognized that the 1850 act was inadequate to meet the changing conditions in which the 1870 Census would need to be conducted. A special committee of the U.S. House of Representatives (Second Session, Forty-First Congress) investigated and reported on the need for a new census act. The committee’s report was submitted as a bill on January 18, 1870. This bill was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives, but defeated in the Senate, compelling the use of the 1850 Census act. 13 General Walker was one of several “experts” participating in the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee deliberations on the 1870 Census. Prior to being appointed Superintendent of the Ninth Census, Walker was Chief of the Bureau of Statistics, which then was an agency within the Treasury Department.
  5. Social Statistics. The 1860 schedule was modified to incorporate the questions on (1) bonded and other debt of counties, cities, towns, and townships, parishes, and boroughs, (2) pauperism and crime by race (“native black” and “native white”); (3) number of church organizations and church buildings; (4) number of teachers and students; (5) kinds of schools, libraries, and taxes, by type.

The 1870 enumeration was completed on August 23, 1871. The work of compiling the census data, a portion of which was tallied using a machine invented by Charles W. Seaton, was completed in 1872.

1870 Census Guide – Questions & Information

The 1870 census covered the following states:

  1. Alabama
  2. Arizona Territory
  3. Arkansas
  4. California
  5. Colorado Territory
  6. Connecticut
  7. Dakota Territory
  8. Delaware
  9. District of Columbia
  10. Florida
  11. Georgia
  12. Idaho Territory
  13. Illinois
  14. Indiana
  15. Indian Territory*
  16. Iowa
  17. Kansas
  18. Kentucky
  19. Louisiana
  20. Maine
  21. Maryland
  22. Massachusetts
  23. Michigan
  24. Minnesota
  25. Mississippi
  26. Missouri
  27. Montana Territory
  28. Nebraska
  29. Nevada
  30. New Hampshire
  31. New Jersey
  32. New Mexico Territory
  33. New York
  34. North Carolina
  35. Ohio
  36. Oregon
  37. Pennsylvania
  38. Rhode Island
  39. South Carolina
  40. Tennessee
  41. Texas
  42. Utah Territory
  43. Vermont
  44. Virginia
  45. Washington Territory
  46. West Virginia
  47. Wisconsin
  48. Wyoming Territory

Schedules for some counties are missing.

* The Indian Territory, which contained the present day Oklahoma, was enumerated only for those Non-American settlers. The information will be found at the end of the Arkansas

Information Found Within the 1870 Census

  • Name of each person.
  • Name of the county, parish, township, town, or city where the family resides
  • Age
  • Sex
  • Color (Race)
  • Birthplace
  • Whether married in the last year
  • Profession, occupation, or trade of each person over 15 years of age
  • Value of Real Estate
  • Value of Personal Estate
  • Whether deaf, blind, dumb, insane, idiotic, pauper, or criminal
  • Whether able to speak or speak English
  • Whether the person attended school within the previous year
  • Identified foreign birth of father and mother
  • Whether able to read or write
  • Identified male citizens whose right to vote was revoked for reasons other then rebellion or other crime.

Genealogy Strategy for the 1870 Census

Due to it’s early nature the 1870 census provides the littlest of “meat” for the genealogist as it only names the head of the household and provides a range of ages for all other occupants of the house . The content of the census directly indicates the name of the head of household, and the location of the family, but indirectly can be used to direct future research.

  1. Location of the Household
    As in all census, the location of the household at the time the census was taken becomes a valuable tool for further research allowing you to concentrate on records of that time period in that particular location. The 1870 census will provide you the district, township, and county of your ancestor.
  2. Establishing the Composition of a Family
    Individual names are provided. No relationships were given in the census, instructions were provided to the census taker as to which order to enumerate a household. “The names are to be written, beginning with the father and mother; or if either, or both, be dead, begin with some other ostensible head of the family; to be followed, as far as practicable, with the name of the oldest child residing at home, then the next oldest, and so on to the youngest, then the other inmates, lodgers and borders, laborers, domestics, and servants.”
  3. Age of Inhabitants
    The 1870 census (column 13) indicates the month in which the person was born, if born “within the year,” that is between June 1, 1869 and May 31, 1870. While not an exact age, the fact that you’re provided the year each person is born will assist you in finding birth records.
  4. African American Research
    After the Civil War, slaves were “freed” throughout the South. Researching your African American ancestry after since 1870 is much easier through use of the census. There were a total of 4,835,562 coloreds enumerated in the 1870 census of the United States3.
  5. Tracking the Migration
    The 1870 census provides the birthplace of each individual. Along with the age of each individual this can enable the genealogist to track the location of the family at different years in the past. The instructions provided to the enumerators requested that they provide the initials or name of the state, or country of each person enumerated. Some enumerators would provide an even further breakdown, such as county or township, especially when the birth occurred in the state of the enumeration.
  6. Occupation
    The occupation of each male family member over 15 is recorded. Indication of a farmer would point to further searching of Schedule 4, agricultural census. A mention of a profession would indicate possible search of a professional directory. Clergy were enumerated as well under occupation, and the genealogist should search within the records of the denomination indicated.
  7. Real Estate
    An indication of real estate value might point to land or tax records.
  8. Personal Estate
    The personal value of an individuals estate is likely to err on the side of less, rather then more. It is highly likely that the person being enumerated was unlikely to provide a true net worth as they were afraid of being taxed on the amount given.
  9. At School
    An indication of being at school within a household might point to local school records.
  10. Insane
    An indication of insane within a household might point to guardianship or institutional records.1
  11. Convict
    The indication of a persons enumeration as a convict is rare, unless the census actually finds them in the jail at the time of the census. Furthermore, a person in jail, may be listed twice, if his home was in a different district. Instructions given to the enumerator was to ask, or use their own knowledge and county records as a source, in identifying those who had been a “criminal” within the past year.
  12. Native American Research
    The identity of an Indian in the 1870 census is helped by the identification of Indians as (I) in column 6.
  13. Children of Immigrants
    The 1870 census is the first to identify those children of foreign born parents (columns 11 + 12). Researchers can use this information to look for further immigration records.
  14. Citizenship
    Individuals of foreign birth who are eligible to vote, also indicates citizenship, and researchers should look to naturalization and court records for possible further leads.

1870 Census Forms


  1. Source: Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research. Study 00003: Historical Demographic, Economic, and Social Data: U.S., 1790-1970. Anne Arbor: ICPSR.

1870 Census,

Partridge, Dennis N. United States Census Guide. Copyright 2008-2013.

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