NYC Records & Information Services

City Hall Library Notes - September 18, 2020


Spotlight on: Historic Census Resources

This week we offer a blog post from Commissioner Pauline Toole and Library/Archive Research Associate Marcia Kirk, originally published on March 15, 2020 at:

It’s census time. Once every ten years, the United States Census takes a count of every person in the United States. The taking of the census is mandated by the U.S. Constitution and has occurred every 10 years since 1790. It is vitally important for all New Yorkers to be counted. Census information is used to determine the city’s fair share of billions of dollars in federal funds for public education, affordable housing, infrastructure, and more—as well as the number of seats we have in Congress. In the 2010 Census, the city’s self-response rate was less than 62%, compared to the national average of 76%. Let’s do better this time! Here is the link to the census:

This once-every-decade push reminds us that the Municipal Library and Municipal Archives holdings include information about several State and local census dating from the first decades after Independence. The earliest reference to a census can be found in Article 5 of the New York State Constitution of 1777:

“That as soon after the expiration of seven years (subsequent to the termination of the present war) as may be a census of the electors and inhabitants in this state be taken, under the direction of this legislature.”

"Subsequently, electoral censuses were conducted in 1795, 1801, 1807, 1814, and 1821 “in compliance with this law.”

The first census to include information about the inhabitants of New York, not just the electors was passed by the New York State Legislature on April 15, 1814. “An Act for Taking a Census of Electors and Inhabitants of this State” included women, children, slaves and all other free persons.

Photo of Census

The Municipal Library collection includes the printed Sessions of the Legislature. NYC Municipal Library.

In 1816 New York City decided to conduct its own census, generally referred to as the Jury Census. Newly elected Assistant Alderman Elisha W. King presented a resolution in the meeting of the Common Council on January 29th, for a “census of inhabitants and an accurate list of Jurors qualified to serve in the different Courts…” which was agreed upon by the Council. A committee was formed that included Asst. Alderman King, Alderman Augustine H. Lawrence, and Richard Riker, Recorder “to carry the same into effect.”

On May 17, 1819, the Council established a committee to again conduct a census to create a “Jury and Census list.” The census results were published in the Minutes of the Common Council on November 15, 1819.

The New York State census of 1821 was also an electoral census (as had been in 1814), however, it introduced additional questions regarding agriculture and manufacturing. There was a special meeting of the Common Council on June 4, 1821 “for the purpose of Complying with the provisions of the Late act of the Legislature… by appointing Persons in each Ward to take the Census of said Ward.” In the meeting of June 11, 1821 there is discussion and resolutions made with the Finance Committee regarding compensation for the census takers.

Based upon the information in the Minutes of the Common Council both the 1816 and 1819 Jury Censuses were mandated by the Council. The 1821 Census was mandated by an act of the NY State Legislature and the Council complied with the directive from the state.

The extant census records created under the direction of these Common Council resolutions are in the Municipal Archives. They have been digitized and can be viewed in the Archives gallery.

The collection consists of 21 bound volumes containing tally sheets of returns for the City and County of New York, organized by ward. There are tallies for 1816, 1819, and 1821. The tallies were taken to determine if residents were eligible for jury duty and include varying degrees of descriptive detail. For example, for 1816 and 1819 the returns are given in a double-page tabular format with column headings for the following categories: names of inhabitants, number of houses, name of street, occupation, freeholds of $150, age, reason for exemption from jury, total number of jurors, the number of male and female white inhabitants, aliens, colored inhabitants not slaves, slaves, freeholders of £100 and upwards, freeholds of £20 and under £100, tenants renting $5 per annum, total number of inhabitants, plus a column for remarks. For the 1821 census, the returns, in similar format, include data in these categories: name of the head of each family, number and street of residence, number of male inhabitants of the same family age 21 or upwards in four classifications according to value of freeholds and debts, military service and tax exemption or commutation. Other data includes: number of acres of improved land occupied by each person, as well as tallies of cattle, horses, sheep, and yards of various types of cloth manufactured by each family, and a count of mills, factories, distilleries, asheries (a place where potash is made), and machinery. Each tally is identified with this description: “RETURN, made pursuant to the Act, entitled, ‘An Act to provide for taking a Census, and for other purposes,’ passed March 16, 1821, from the City and County of New-York.”  

2nd Image of census

1819 Census, 6th Ward. NYC Municipal Archives.

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