Genealogy Notebook presents stories, research and information on Pennsylvania family histories. Ran regularly, Spring 2004 to Spring 2006.

Pennsylvania’s consti­tution has nothing like the “actual Enumeration” clause of the U.S. Constitution, which is the basis for the once-per­-decade federal censuses that have become the sin­gle most important record group for genealogists. While the Commonwealth has never taken such an all-inclusive headcount, it did enumerate taxpayers in listings called the Septennial Census to deter­mine representation in the General Assembly. As its name implies, the Septen­nial Census was conducted every seven years, commencing in 1779 and concluding in 1863.

Several caveats needed to temper researchers’ ex­citement if they have never heard of this source. First of all, only about 11 per­cent of the original records remain from the Septennial Census. Secondly, the only information listed in many of the returns is the name of each taxpayer, although some returns do contain occupa­tions or taxpayers’ ages.

Surviving Septennial Census returns are found in the Penn­sylvania State Archives, Record Group 7, Records of the General Assembly. While every county shows lists of “taxable inhabitants” (generally, landowners) and “freemen” (non­landowning single men age twenty-one and above), some counties also list “inmates” (non-landowning married men).

There are also some other oddities in certain counties’ re­turns. A few returns for Franklin County (1828, 1835, 1842), Columbia County (1821), Mifflin County (1821), and Philadel­phia City (1863) provide the name, age, and gender of deaf, dumb, and blind inhabitants.

The age, name, gender, and place of residence of each slave are frequently given beginning in 1800; occasionally the name of the slave’s owner is also provided. A number of these lists have been transcribed by the Afrolumens Project: African Ameri­can History for Central Pennsylvania and included on its Web site, offering what is often the only record of enslaved persons of a specific era.

It is noted on the Afrolumens transcripts that few slaves younger than twenty are listed, indicating that only the slaves born before November 1780 were enumerated and considered “slaves for life.” The children of slaves born after that date were to be freed at age twenty-eight, according to Pennsylvania’s Gradual Emancipation Act of 1780 (see “Slaves at the President’s House” by William C. Kashatus, Fall 2004). Although these indi­viduals were held in bondage for twenty-eight years, they were officially called “servants” and, except for a few cases, not counted as slaves in tax and census listings.

Other Internet sites, primarily county sites affiliated with the WorldGenWeb project through the PAGenWeb project (www.pa­genweb.org), are offering transcripts of portions of the surviving Septennial Census returns. Municipalities are listed within the county to which they belonged at the time of the particular cen­sus, which may be different than the present designation.

At least some returns survive from thirty-one counties. The 1800 Septennial Census is the only count from which returns survive from every county then in existence; this census is also the one with the most complete schedule of enslaved persons, al­though a few slave lists survive from later years.

The Septennial Census returns (in some cases, only frag­ments) available to researchers are:

  • Adams, 1800
  • Allegheny, 1800
  • Armstrong, 1800
  • Bedford, 1779, 1786, 1800
  • Berks, 1779, 1786, 1800
  • Bucks, 1786, 1800
  • Cameron, 1863
  • Centre, 1800
  • Chester, 1779 to 1814
  • Columbia, 1821
  • Cumberland, 1793 to 1849
  • Dauphin, 1786, 1800, 1807
  • Delaware, 1793, 1800
  • Fayette, 1786, 1800
  • Franklin, 1786 to 1842
  • Greene, 1800
  • Huntingdon, 1800, 1821
  • Lancaster, 1779 to 1800
  • Luzerne, 1800
  • Lycoming, 1800
  • Mifflin, 1800, 1821
  • Montgomery, 1786 to 1842
  • Northamp­ton, 1786, 1800
  • Northumberland, 1800
  • Philadelphia, 1793, 1800, 1863
  • Somer­set, 1800
  • Washington, 1786, 1800
  • Wayne, 1800
  • Westmoreland, 1786, 1800
  • Wyoming, 1849
  • York Counties, 1786 to 1807

The Septennial Census records, taken alone, do not provide a significant amount of information. To find additional genealogical clues, consult:

  • State and county tax lists (look in the published Pennsylvania Archives for many colonial lists; in county court houses; and the county microfilm collection at the Pennsylvania State Archives);
  • City and county directories (the State Library of Pennsylvania has an out­ standing collection of directories on microfilm and in original bindings);
  • Miscellaneous listings such as subscribers to published books or attendees at a dedication event (check with county historical soci­eties and in private collections made available to researchers); and
  • County vital records, estate documents, church records (at county courthouses, local historical and genealogical societies, and some churches).

The power of this source – along with the others listed above­ – is in locating an individual in his or her time and place, which often creates a smaller haystack.

 

For Further Reading

Baumann, Roland M. A Manual of Archival Techniques. Harris­burg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1982.

Carmicheal, David. Organizing Archival Records. Walnut Creek. Calif.: AltaMira Press, 2004.

Drudor, Robert M. Guide to Genealogical Sources at The Penn­sylvania State Archives. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1988.

Munger, Donna Bingham. Pennsylvania Land Records: A History and Guide for Research. Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources, 1991.

Shirk, Willis L. Documenting Pennsylvania’s Past: The First Century of the Pennsylvania State Archives. Harrisburg, Pa.: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 2003.

 

James M. Beidler writes and lectures on genealogy. He authored “Genealogy,” a chapter in Pennsylvania: A History of the Commonwealth, co-published in 2002 by the Pennsylvania Histori­cal and Museum Commission and the Penn State Press. His “Roots & Branches” weekly newspaper column appears in the Lebanon Daily News and Altoona Mirror. He is a former executive director of the Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania. Readers may contact him directly at james@beidler.us.