FIRST CENSUS TAKERS HAD THEIR PROBLEMS
Steve Edgerton February 04, 2004
The article below first appeared in the "Kentucky Farmer" and was written by Nevyle Shacklford
who is with the Department of Public Information, College of Agriculture, University of Kentucky,
"Sir: I beg to report that I have been dogbit, goose-pecked, cowkicked, briar-scratched, shot at,
and called every 'fowel' that can be tho't of. I have worked 12 days and made $2. I have had enough
and I beg to resign my position as a census taker for Crittenden Township."
So wrote Roger Waite to a marshal of census enumerators for the State of Vermont on August 24, 1790
the year of the first national census of the United States.
Research does not reveal whether or not the disheartened and disgusted Waite's resignation was accepted
or denied. What is revealed is that the pay for enumerators was very low, even for that day. Government
records that the highest rate paid under any condition was $1.00 for the count of 50 persons and that
was for enumerators in outlying districts where the inhabitants were "widely dispersed." In cities and
towns the rate was $1.00 for every 300 persons counted. Out of these amounts, the census takers were
obliged to furnish their own schedules "properly ruled" and to take care of any other expenses incurred.
In some instances the cost of the schedules was more than the fees collected.
Many had never been enumerated before and were naturally suspicious of strangers coming around asking
questions. Others, remembering the biblical reference to the head count for purposes of taxation at
the time of the birth of Christ, often displayed a downright unfriendly attitude. Then still other
citizens, recalling the plagues that befell the children of Israel following the enumeration made
by King David, also refused to cooperate.
So when the enumerators persisted with their questioning, they were often lucky to get by with just
a dog bite. In a sparsely settled area in Pennsylvania, there is one instance of an enumerator being
There were various other reasons on the part of the population for the reluctance to answer questions,
but in a 1909 publication issued by the U.S. Census Bureau, it is written that the most potent factor
was the widespread belief that the census was connected with taxes.
At the end of this first census in 1790, the total population count was a fraction under 4 million.
Some authorities of that ime, however, were a bit dubious of that figure. Because of the low pay they
believed that to make ends meet, some of the enumerators in the "more remote and sparsely settled
sections" of the country may have included "some persons not in existence." One reasonable ground
for such suspicion stemmed from what was described as the "absurd and ludicrous combinations of the
names and surnames" listed on the census taker schedules and turned in to the marshals. Officers of
the Bureau of Census believed that such names as "Joseph Came, Peter Went, John Sat, Joseph Grackbone,
Ruth Shaves, Web Ashbean, Comfort Clock, Sarah Goosehorn, Moses Rainwater, Mercy Cheese, Unity Tallowback,
Lookinbill Barnthistle, Sussannsh Beersticker, Constance Cathole," and hundreds of other equally equally
absurd, were spurious and not the names of real citizens.
The old Bureau of Census publications goes on to say that in 1790, there were 27,337 surnames in the
United States with English and Scotch names, or derivations of these names, being preponderant.
This year, two centuries later, the cost of counting the heads of some 222 million citizens will be much
more. And as in the days of old, some members of the population may resent what they may consider an
invasion of privacy and set their dogs on the enumerator.
But as sociologists in the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture point out, taking the census
is necessary for the continued good welfare of the nation."
Go to Fayetteville Town 1790 Census
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