U.S. Presidents in the Census

by Julie Hill

Posted on September 13, 2011

In every US Federal Population Census, one individual is guaranteed to have the following unique entry in the field, Occupation, Trade, or Profession: President of the United States. After we added the 1790 to 1930 US Census records to Archives.com recently, we looked through the collections for Commanders in Chief, sure to be counted just like the rest of us. In the case of Zachary Taylor, this singular vocation was abbreviated "Prest U.S."

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Maybe the enumerator wouldn't have been in such a rush if "Old Rough and Ready" had still been president on August 31, 1850, when he was counted in the census for the last time. In fact, Taylor had been dead since July 9. His death, popularly blamed on over-indulgence in cherries and cold milk at a hot Fourth of July picnic, continues to inspire assassination theories. Taylor had opposed a package of bills that might introduce slavery into recently acquired southwest territories. Vice-President Millard Fillmore openly supported the bills, known as the Compromise of 1850. After Taylor's death, Fillmore signed the Compromise, which also introduced the Fugitive Slave Act, requiring runaway slaves to be returned to their masters and fining officials who did not arrest fugitive slaves.

Some historians saw Taylor's death as too convenient for Southern interests and were further suspicious of the vague sickness that shared gastrointestinal symptoms with arsenic poisoning. In 1991, Taylor's body was exhumed to undergo tests for indications of poisoning. Though traces of arsenic were found in his remains, the examiners ruled that it was not enough to have been lethal. Still, considering alternative theories is part of what makes history--whether about celebrities, your ancestors, or maybe your celebrity ancestors--so intriguing.

Perhaps less mysterious than his death is Taylor's post-mortem appearance in the census. In 1850, enumerators were instructed to record all persons living on June 1, including those who had since died and excluding those who had since been born. Because the rule also applied to occupation, Millard Fillmore was recorded as the Vice President when the census-taker arrived on July 31, even though he had been Chief Executive since July 9.

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We found some more presidential entries. Ulysses S. Grant's name is so illegible in the 1870 Census that he is listed in the search results as "U ? Grant":

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Like Millard Fillmore, William McKinley was counted in his home state of New York despite living in the White House at the time of the census:

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Theodore Roosevelt's two terms as president (1901-1909) happened to fall between two censuses, but he is listed as Governor of New York in 1900:

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President of the United States might be the most unique occupation in any census, but it's only one of many interesting answers to the question, "What did your ancestors do?" Have you found any surprises in the occupation field? Share your discoveries in the comments below.

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