1870 United States Census

The United States Census of 1870 was the ninth United States Census. Conducted by the Census Bureau in June 1870, the 1870 Census was the first census to provide detailed information on the black population, only years after the culmination of the Civil War when slaves were granted freedom. The population was said to be 38,555,983 individuals, a 22.62% increase since 1860. The 1870 Census' population estimate is controversial, as many believed it underestimated the true population numbers, especially in New York and Pennsylvania.

Census Act of 1850

1870 United States Census

Under the Census Act of 1850, two new structural changes during the 1870 Census occurred: marshals had to return the completed population questionnaire to the Census Office in September and penalties for refusing to reply to enumerator questions were extended to encompass every question on the questionnaires.


The commonly past-used slave questionnaires were redesigned to reflect the American society after the Civil War. The five schedules for the 1870 Census were the following: General Population, Mortality, Agriculture, Products of Industry, and Social Statistics.

The general population saw a 22.62% increase to 38,555,983 individuals in 1870. Charges of an undercount, however, have been brought against Francis Amasa Walker, the Superintendent of the Census.

Mortality rates in 1870, in general, decreased as a fraction of the total population by 0.03% from 1860 and by 0.11% from 1850. The lower death rates indicate that the standard of living increased, due to some exogenous factor, over the period of twenty years from 1850 to 1870.

In terms of products of industry, total U.S. wealth increases by 17.3% from 1860 to 1870, to reach an assessed wealth of $14,178,986,732. The four main state contributors to this wealth were New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, in that order. Most of the wealth was concentrated in the developed Northeast region, as newer states like Wyoming were beginning to develop their young economies.

The 1870 Census was the first of its kind to record the nativity of the American population. This social statistic indicates which areas were more highly composed of immigrants than native-born Americans. New York City had the most foreign-born individuals, with 419,094 foreigners, who comprised 44.5% of the city's total population. Philadelphia, Chicago, St. Louis, and San Francisco also had a great population of foreigners that made up a significant fraction of their total populations. Therefore, a great ethnic and cultural change was witnessed from 1860 to 1870, as part of the population growth was due to immigrants moving in and a shuffling of residents across state borders.

Census questions

The 1870 census collected the following information

  • name
  • age
  • sex
  • color (including Chinese and Indian)
  • citizenship for males over 21
  • profession, occupation or trade
  • value of real estate owned
  • value of personal estate
  • place of birth
  • whether father and mother were foreign born
  • born within the year
  • married within the year
  • attended school within the year
  • whether able to read and write (for persons 10 years old and over)
  • whether deaf and dumb, blind, insane or idiotic

Full documentation for the 1870 population census, including census forms and enumerator instructions, is available from the Integrated Public Use Microdata Series.

Population undercounting controversy

Although Francis Walker, the Superintendent of the 1870 Census, defended the quality of the census, arguing that standardized, clear, and statistical approaches and practices were carried out across all regions of America, the public at the time was disappointed in the national growth rate and suspected underenumeration. With especially bitter complaints coming from New York and Philadelphia claiming up to a third of the population was not counted, the President made the rare move to order a recount in those areas. While it was thought a large fraction of the population was not counted for being indoors in the wintry cold, newer estimates resulted in only a 2.5% increase in Philadelphia's population and a 2% increase in New York's.

This controversy of the 1870 undercount resurfaced in 1890, when the national growth rate between 1880 and 1890 was discovered to be much lower than it was between 1870 and 1880. Critics then asserted that the 1870 population must have been underenumerated by over 1.2 million people to account for the discrepancy between growth rates; it was presumed that the growth rate in 1880 had to be exaggerated because of the 1870 undercount. Despite the fact that modern investigations have yet to quantify the exact effect of the undercount, most modern social scientists do not believe the undercount was as severe as 1890 investigators assumed. Today most analyzers compare the 1870 undercount to the non-response rates seen in most modern census data.


  • J. David Hacker, et al., "Integrated Public Use Microdata Series USA. "Public Use of Microdata Samples of the 1860 and 1870 U.S. Censuses of Population. University of Minnesota. 1 March 2011.
  • "U.S. Census Bureau." Census of Population and Housing. 1 June 1870. 1 March 2011.
  • "U.S. Census Bureau." Nativity of the Population for the 50 Largest Urban Places: 1870 to 1990. 1 March 2011.
  • "Library Bibliography Bulletin 88, New York State Census Records, 1790-1925". New York State Library. October 1981.

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