Rhode Island Genealogical Society

Early Rhode Island Censuses

Cherry Fletcher Bamberg, FASG

Although censuses of freemen, black and white servants, Indians, and militia members were taken routinely in Rhode Island during the eighteenth century, most genealogists limit themselves to the 1774 colony census, the 1777 military census, and the 1782 state census. It’s not hard to see why: these returns have been published with indexes and are easily accessible to the researcher. There is a great deal more census data available, but understanding what each census includes and where to find it is difficult. I have been keeping notes for the last fifteen years for personal use, with an eye toward eventual publication. While the list is still evolving, others may find my notes useful in this form. I would be very grateful to learn of additional sources. Please send any additions and/or corrections to me at Bamberg@tiac.net.
For other suggestions see Evarts B. Greene and Virginia Harrington, American Population Before the Federal Census of 1790 [1932] (repr., Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 1981, 1993), pp. 61-69.

In the wake of the restoration of the Rhode Island Patent of 1644 in 1654, the colony had to reorganize. Part of the job was determining freemen. Names of freemen (all white men) were collected for Providence, Portsmouth, Newport, and Warwick, the only towns then existing. Bartlett, Recs. of R.I., 1: 299–300. There were many other men who were “inhabitants,” that is, residents without voting rights, in addition to women and people of color.

In April 1708, at the behest of the Board of Trade, the Rhode Island General Assembly ordered a list of freemen, servants black and white, and militia members, to be prepared by October 1st. The towns––Newport, Providence, Portsmouth, Warwick, Westerly, New Shoreham, Kingstown, Jamestown, and Greenwich––look a little strange to the modern eye as many of them later divided, some many times over. Totals only are shown in the report. The governor Samuel Cranston apologized to the Board of Trade for his inability to determine growth, "by reason that there was no list ever taken before this" (John R. Bartlett, Records of the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations in New England [10 vols., Providence R.I.: Alfred Anthony, 1857-1865] 4:33, 44, 59).

In June 1730, the General Assembly ordered another census to be sent by town clerks to the governor for transmittal to Board of Trade in London (Bartlett, Records of the Colony of Rhode Island, 4:438). This one showed the population of the colony at about 18,000, including 1,500 black slaves and fewer than 1,000 Indians. Surviving originals of this census are scanty. See Ruth W. Sherman, "1730 Census of Portsmouth, R.I.," Rhode Island Roots, Vol. 7, No. 2 (June 1981), pp. 16-17, and Jane Fletcher Fiske, "1730 Census, South Kingstown RI," Rhode Island Roots, Vol. 10, No. 1 (March 1984), p. 8. Judith Green Watson's book South Kingstown, Rhode Island Tax Lists 1730-1799 (Rockland, Me.: Picton Press, 2007) includes a fragment of the latter census, apparently from a different source. Originals of these towns were in town halls at the date of publication.

Rhode Island Freemen, 1747-1755, A Census of Registered Voters
This volume was compiled by Bruce C. MacGunnigle in 1977 and reprinted by Clearfield in 1999. The names were compiled from lists published by Sidney S. Rider in 1875 and original material at Rhode Island State Archives. It is not a census as the others are, showing heads of household on a specific date. Rather it gives the year during this span of time in which some men (all white) became freemen. It should be used as a guide to finding the actual date in Bartlett's Records of the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations in New England which shows the names of freemen by year. This source should in turn be checked against original General Assembly records at Rhode Island State Archives.

  • “The Male Inhabitants of Warren, Rhode Island, 1747,” was published in The Rhode Island Historical Magazine, Vol. 6 (1885–1886), 146-148. It shows men, noting those above 60, “Cripples & Cleared from Service,” and “Soldiers and Men for Service.”
  • “Account of the people...of Rhode Island, whites and blacks...,” Rhode Island Historical Society Manuscripts, Rhode Island Census 1755, Mss 9003, Volume 12, p. 12, enumeration only, by town.
  • Number of blacks in each town in Rhode Island in 1755, Rhode Island Citizens Historical Association Providence Notes and minutes 1883-1888, Mss 677, RIHSL, p. 47.
  • Summary of census data for 1755 broken down by race, gender and amount of arms and ammunition in private hands. Includes totals for 1730 and 1748 censuses broken down by white and black inhabitants, Rhode Island State Censuses, MSS 231 SG2, RIHS.

1767 List of Polls and estates real and personal of the proprietors and inhabitants
This census of voters and estimates of their rateable (taxable) estates was ordered by the General Assembly at its session of June 1767, and a summary of the returns presented in February 1769 appears in Bartlett’s Colonial Records of Rhode Island, 6:576. The only surviving town returns known presently are those of Newport, filmed by L. Cox at South Kingstown Town Hall on 10 September 1973 (FHL US and Can 932340). These are partial, some pages torn or missing. Abstracts were published in Rhode Island Roots, June – December 2014. While these returns show only the name of head of household, they contain valuable information on plate, money and trading goods, slaves, rents, mill, and wharves, as well as the more standard farming and livestock categories.

1774 Census of Rhode Island

  • Original at R.I. State Archives. Microfilm also available. Categories for males and females over and under sixteen for whites, Indians, and blacks. New Shoreham (Block Island) has numbers but no names. Names for heads of household only.
  • There is a widely used printed version: John R. Bartlett, Census of the Inhabitants of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations 1774 [1858] (repr., Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1969). Bartlett's version has two serious deficiencies: alphabetical order and totals only for Indians and blacks. See "The 1774 Census of Rhode Island: A New Look at an Old Friend," Rhode Island Roots, Vol. 29, No. 3 (Sept, 2003) for a description of the problems.
  • Starting with the December 2003 issue, a faithful transcription of the original was published town by town in Rhode Island Roots. These towns are indexed in the December issue of the year in which they were printed. Bartlett's version is useful as an index.
    Barrington, June 2007
    Bristol, Sept. 2007
    Charlestown, Dec. 2003
    Coventry, March 2005
    Cranston, March 2006
    Cumberland, June 2006
    East Greenwich, Sept. 2004
    Exeter, March 2004
    Glocester, Dec. 2005
    Hopkinton, March 2004
    Jamestown, Dec. 2008
    Johnston, Dec. 2006
    Little Compton, March 2008
    Middletown, June 2008
    Newport, all issues 2009
    North Kingstown, June 2004
    North Providence, June 2006
    Portsmouth, Sept. 2008
    Providence, June 2005
    Richmond, March 2004
    Scituate, Sept. 2006
    Smithfield, Sept. 2005
    South Kingstown, June 2004
    Tiverton, Dec. 2007
    Warren, Mar. 2007
    Warwick, Dec. 2004
    West Greenwich, Sept. 2004
    Westerly, Dec. 2003

1777 Military Census of Rhode Island

  • Original at R.I. State Archives. Microfilm available.
  • Names of men 16–50, 50–60, and 60+ who were “A” (able to bear arms) or “U” (unable to bear arms). Natural rather than alphabetical order (in most towns) is extremely useful in determining who was living where. Only source for men who were not heads of household, including those who were not free. Men counted out of their place of settlement are noted. Certain towns have no returns. Newport, Middletown, Portsmouth, and New Shoreham (Block Island) were occupied by the British; Exeter and Little Compton returns are missing.
  • Published version: Mildred M. Chamberlain, The Rhode Island 1777 Military Census [serialized in Rhode Island Roots 1981-1984] (repr., Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1985). Some omissions. This book can be read online at Ancestry.com.

1782 Census of Rhode Island

  • Fragile original at Rhode Island Historical Society Library in the Rhode Island State Censuses, MSS 231 Sg 2. Researchers should use Microfilm, HA 612 1782 S7, which has a later, very useful index. Several printed transcripts are available.
  • Although this is regarded as a state census, it was taken in compliance with a directive from the Continental Congress. It has categories for males and females under 16, 16-22, 22-50, over 50 for whites, Indians, mulattoes, and blacks, and is thus the most extensive attempt to determine race. Unlike other censuses, this one alternates male and female data by age. Names for heads of household only. Some missing towns: Barrington, Johnston, Smithfield, North Providence, Richmond.
  • The most common printed version is that of Jay Mack Holbrook, Rhode Island 1782 Census (Oxford, Mass.: Holbrook Research Institute, 1979). The author says that it is a composite of the "original" (location unspecified) and tax lists for missing towns. This version shares the faults of Bartlett's edition of the 1774 census: it is strictly alphabetical and compresses the collected data on people of color into totals only. Detailed analysis of numbers. A better version is that done before 1945 by Katharine U. Waterman. Her work appeared, after her death, in the NEHG Register 1973-1975 in a long series, "The Rhode Island Census of 1782." Waterman at least respected the original order, if she too gave only totals for minorities. A summary of totals appears in Bartlett, Colonial Records of Rhode Island, 9:652.

1790 U.S. Census of Rhode Island

  • Original at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Can be seen on online services such as Ancestry.com or HeritageQuest. Printed version: Heads of Families at the First Census of the United States Taken in the Year 1790: Rhode Island [1908] (repr., Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1992).
  • Categories are free white males of 16 and over, free white males under 16, free white females of all ages, all other free persons, and slaves. Gender, age, and civil status are the only information that can be found. Names for heads of household only.

Anomalies in later censuses

  • 1800 U.S. Census.
    No column for race, but at Warwick, Rhode Island black heads of household are followed by “B.M,” presumably for “black man.”
  • 1810 U.S. Census. In most towns in Rhode Island the original returns have been filmed out of order by NARA and appear in this wrong order on Ancestry.com and other online sources. See Cherry Fletcher Bamberg, FASG, “Navigating the Shoals of the 1810 Census of Providence and Beyond,” Rhode Island Roots, March 2011. In East Greenwich the names of wives are given.  
    • In Warwick the censustaker substituted “B” for the names of black heads of household with the result many black and Indian heads of household appear to have left town. There are 230 “free blacks” and one enslaved person there, all with no information.

State Censuses at Rhode Island State Archives [List in progress. Many are available online but with only vague citations of original document.]

  • 1865, indexed on cards at RISA, RIHSL, and the Family History Library. Printout of minority residents in this census is available in a binder on the shelves at RISA.
  • 1875, film and indices at RIHSL and the Family History Library. Available online.
  • 1885, original records showing families were discarded when information on individuals
    was entered on file cards. The cards were organized in rough alpha by first letter of surname in ward. The list is widely available online. A reconstructed list of families is available at Rhode Island State Archives.
  • 1895, lost. For Block Island, see Jeffrey Howe and Barbara Caspar “1895 State Census of New Shoreham” (indexed computer printout, 1996, at NEHGS).
  • 1905, organized in rough alpha by first letter of surname, males and females separated. Categories: no. of family in order of visitation, no. in family, name, residence, town, country, ward, voting district, relation to head of household, color, age, conjugal condition, date of birth, mother of how many children, no. children living 1 June 1905, place of birth, native or foreign born, read, write, year of immigration, years in U.S., years res. in R.I., no. months res. in city in which now living, birth place of father, birth place of mother, occupation (or over 13), months unemployed during census year, widow of Union soldier, sailor, or marine during Civil or Spanish War, pensioner?, Roman Catholic, Protestant. If Protestant, what denomination?  


Censuses vary widely in the questions that are asked, depending on what it is that the government wants to know. The following list includes censuses that show only totals for categories, others that list heads of household only, some that are tax lists, some for people of color, and others for men only. These can be used to supplement colony censuses of 1774, 1777, 1782, federal censuses every ten years from 1790 to the present, and state censuses every ten years from 1865 on.
A summary of Providence censuses, including ones ordered by the colony/state of Rhode Island and the federal government, can be found in Edwin M. Snow’s appendix to Census of the City of Providence, Taken in July, 1855, City Document No. 6 (Providence: Knowles, Anthony & Co., 1856). This interesting document provides valuable information on the background and location (at that time) of each census and provides numerical tables summarizing each one.

  • 1655 "List of Freemen," said by Snow to be in the colony records, prob. at State Archives.
    Mentioned in Bartlett, Recs. of R.I., 1:256. Reprinted by Snow, p. 2.
  • 1762 Census of Providence
    Fragmentary record of a census of Providence residents on the west side of the bridge in the Warner. Papers (No. 410) at Rhode Island Historical Society Library. Totals only, no names. The categories are somewhat different and illuminating from a sociological if not genealogical point of view: number of houses, seven categories for whites by age and gender, totals for black males and females, and "Children from 5 to 14 Which are Fit for Schooling." Not mentioned by Snow.
  • "Alphabetical List of Names of Persons Residing in Providence," 1763. Moses Brown Papers, Mss 313, Rhode Island Historical Society Library, Series III, subseries 2, Calendar of the Unindexed Documents in Series 3, the Genealogical and Historical Collection of the Moses Brown Papers, No. 13.

    Nothing identifies the purpose of this list or explains the notations next to some names. It has about four hundred names in rough alphabetical order as compared to over 1,200 in the 1774 census, no names of women, no names of people of color, and no age or gender information. It likely represents a fairly accurate list of the freemen—the people who exercised power—in that town at that date. Because it is not organized by household, it shows the names of some young men who were still living in their fathers' houses and thus not counted by name in 1774. It also provides some first names that are inexplicably missing in the 1774 returns.
  • 1768: Rhode Island Historical Society Manuscripts, Providence Census 1768, Mss 9003, Vol. 2, p. 105: Census recap shows 47 blacks residing in Providence.

    Rhode Island Citizens Historical Association Providence Notes and minutes 1883-1888. Provides numbers of 155 black women and 184 black men in Providence in 1768, Mss 677, p.12-13. Not mentioned by Snow.
  • 1770 census of Providence freemen on the east side of the river. Providence Voter Lists, Mss 214, sg 14, folder 1, RIHSL.

    List of 186 names with statistics on how many were freemen and how many of those lived in other towns.
  • 1771: Names of the Owners and Occupants of Buildings in the Town of Providence from 1749 to 1771 (Providence: Sidney S. Rider & Brother, 1870). This volume is a transcript of a manuscript found in the papers of Kingsley Carpenter. It does not appear to be an official census. The unknown author noted in January 1771: "There is, no doubt, some errors in the foregoing acc't, as the author pen'd it by strength of memory, without patrolling the streets to count the buildings." Natural order starting at the north end of town. Categories: whether a building was built or repaired in the previous 22 years, name of builder, owner, or tenant, no. dwellings, no. stores and shops, no. barns, and "remarks," usually notes of unusual features such as a tannery, grist mill, chocolate house, or distillery.
  • 1776 Census of Providence. Original at R.I. State Archives. No microfilm. 
Categories for males and females over and under sixteen for whites, Indians, and blacks. Names for heads of household only. Includes many Bostonians and Newporters dislocated by the Revolution. Transcript by Cherry Fletcher Bamberg, "The 1776 Census of Providence," NEHG Register 159 (Jan. and April 2005). Researchers can find out more about Providence that year in Providence Town Meeting Records, Vol. 6 (1772–1783) (originals at Providence City Hall): a list of ninety men unable to equip themselves for military service (February 1776), p. 39, and a register of 225 voters (by definition male and freemen) for general officers (April 1776), p. 41.
  • 1778: Providence Tax List 1778, Mss 424, Theodore Foster Papers, ca. 1640s-1820s, Vol. 16 (oversized): Polls and estate of Providence, 1778, pp. 1-6. 1778 tax list of Providence includes number of slaves owned (slaves are not individually named). Rhode Island Historical Society Library.
  • 1789 Census of Providence, ordered but not known to exist.
    According to Snow, this census was ordered at a town meeting 25 August 1789 in expectation of a federally ordered census. It was to include a great deal of information on buildings, manufacturing, and navigation. Snow found no record that it was ever taken.
  • 1791 Census of Providence. 1791 Census of the Town of Providence, Providence Census Collection, Mss 214, sg 6, vol. 1, RIHSL. Microfilm available at RIHSL. No printed version.

    Returns are divided by sectors of the city. Shows number of dwelling houses, white males and females over and under 18, 18-45, 45-75, and over 75, all other free persons, and slaves. The notation "/Negro/" was used in the early pages after black heads of household, but the copyist discontinued the notes in the middle of the census.
  • 1798: Direct Tax.
    Providence returns are at Rhode Island Historical Society Library (Mss 232 sg4; mf HJ9013 P9).

    List of owners of residences and shops, with names of tenants, and owners of slaves. Excellent published version: Henry R. Chace, Owners and Occupants of the Lots, Houses and Shops in the Town of Providence Rhode Island in 1798 (Providence, R.I.: The Author, 1914). This book includes names of owners of the properties in 1759 as well as well as extensive maps. Reprint available through Higginson Books (http://www.higginsonbooks.com/ ). With Chace's book in hand, it is often possible to trace the census taker's route in previous natural-order censuses. The book omits much interesting material in the original.

    Mss 232 sg 4 Rhode Island Board of Commissioners Rhode Island Tax 1798, pp. 70-71 has "summary abstract of all slaves owned and superintended..." On p. 19 it states that lists should be prepared showing names and ages of slaves.
  • 1822: "A list of names of colored heads of families and the owners of their residences," RIHSL, Providence Town Papers, Mss 214, sg 1, series 3, vol. 112, No. 0039155. Shows names of all adults in the household, the owner of the house, the street in which it was located, as well as whether the people had a legal settlement in Providence.
  • 1824: "List of People of Color on the East Side of the River August 9, 1824"
    Providence Town Papers, Vol. 184, Providence City Archives. Reported missing 1971, still missing November 2007 the Archives staff was unable to locate this volume.
  • 1825: Census of Providence by Noah Smith, Providence Census Collection, Mss 214, sg 6, RIHSL.

    Whites and non-whites listed separately in alphabetical order. White males and females have four age categories––under 18, 18-45, 45-75, and over 75––and "coloured" people have three––under 18, 18-50, and over 50. At the end numbers in different categories are presented for the Friends Boarding School, Brown, the Alsmhouse, and the Jail. In 1855 this document was in the City Clerk's office, according to Snow. See Jeffrey Howe, "Free People of Color in the 1825 Census of Providence, R.I.," Rhode Island Roots, Vol. 36, No. 1 (March 2010), p. 26.

    More info on free men in Providence Voter Lists, Mss 214, sg 14, box 1, folder 4, RIHSL.
  • 1835: "Census of the City of Providence taken in October & November A.D. 1835" by Joseph Jewett, ms, Providence City Archives.

    The first taken of Providence as an incorporated city, this census has no page numbers and lists residents in rough alphabetical order within six wards. Categories are white males under 18, males 18 to 50, males over 50, females under 18, females 18 to 50, females over 50; "nat" (naturalized); colored males under 18, males 18 to 50, males over 50, females under 18, females 18 to 50, females over 50; school children: free, private, and "not."
  • 1845: "City Census for 1845, for one half of ye second ward," taken by Samuel Brown, Providence Census Collection, Mss 214, sg 6, RIHSL.

    Although this census included a great deal of valuable information (according to Snow's appendix) unfortunately only a fragment remains.  Snow provides a numerical table of whites, under 5, 5-10, 10-15, 15-20, 20-30, 30-40, 40-50, 50-60, 60-70, and 70 & over. The colored population was counted in groups under 10, 10-24, 24-36, 36-55, and 55 & over. He also provides tables of "Foreigners" (male, female, total), "Buildings," (brick or stone, wood, wood and brick, total), use of buildings (dwelling houses, business, public buildings), school children by four age categories and a total, and "Children at Work" (three age groups with total).

    All that remains is the second ward––but that document does not correspond completely to Snow's description. It shows only the categories by age and color with none of the information on buildings or children. The most interesting part is a list of people 70 years old or older, which gives name, age, race, and in some cases the household in which they lived. From Snow we would expect this information to be buried in the lists of heads of household, with most of these individuals shown only as numbers.
  • 1855 Census of the City of Providence. Location unknown.
    This census was ordered by the Providence City Council, and the "minute" data was recorded in volumes, described by Snow as still incomplete in January of 1856. City Document No. 6 is principally concerned with abstracts of the returns. It includes copious charts of every possible detail of age, gender, ethnicity, occupation, and equally full tables relating to structures and businesses. Snow discusses issues of census taking in depth. What this book does not do is to give any names collected.
  • 1873: "Persons Liable for Military Duty, 1873," RIHSL.
    Nineteen pocket notebooks of men.
  • 1881: "Military Census of Providence," by Edwin Snow, RIHSL.
    List of men 18-45, arranged by first letter of surname in ward.