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In 1785 Vermont was a de-facto independent country that was unrecognized largely because the government of New York adamantly insisted that Vermont was legally part of New York (as King George III had ruled it was, in 1764).

It is asserted on this page that that unrecognized state conducted a census in 1785, and has some links to data (for example this page lists heads of households in Ferrisburgh Township who were enumerated in that census.

But this page asserts "No Vermont State Census Records are known to exist."

  • Can the contradiction be resolved?
  • Where can one find authoritative information about this?
  • In 1791, just after deciding to grant Vermont's latest petition for admission to thte Union, Congress decided Vermont would have two representatives in Congress, and that the census conducted the previous year throughout the U.S. but not in Vermont would get extended to Vermont in 1791. Might their decision on the number of representatives have been based on an actual enumeration, namely the 1785 census?

PS: The comment by "SMS von der Tann" posted below confuses matters. Let us recall that

  • In 1777 Vermont's declaration of independence and constitution referred to that polity as "the State of Vermont".
  • Unlike what happened with most (maybe all?) states admitted later the State of Vermont was not succeeded by a new entity when it was admitted. The 1786 constitution of the State of Vermont continued in effect until two years after Vermont was admitted to the Union. Thomas Chittenden began a one-year term of office as governor of Vermont in October 1790, and somewhat less than five months into that one-year term, Vermont was admitted to the Union, and he did not then begin a new term as governor of a new entity, but as a matter of course continued his one-year term uninterrupted, as did other officers of the state. Thus the status of the State of Vermont changed from that of a not-fully-recognized independent country to that of one of the states of the Union, but the state did not begin its existence at that time.

Thus a census conducted by the government of Vermont in 1785 can reasonably be called a state census, construing the word "state" in the sense in which the term was used in the constitution of Vermont that was then in effect, rather than as meaning one of the states within the Union.

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    That page says that "No Vermont State Census Records are known to exist", which is true because in 1785, Vermont was not a State of the Union. – SMS von der Tann Aug 15 '16 at 22:57
  • @SMSvonderTann : It was not one of the states of the Union but it was an entity that called itself "the State of Vermont", and when it became one of the states of the Union it did not become a new entity; rather the constitution of the State of Vermont that had been in effect since 1786 continued in effect, and the officers of the state, including the governor, who had been sworn in five months earlier, continued their one-year terms already in progress. – Michael Hardy Aug 16 '16 at 3:48
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    @SMSvonderTann : It just occurred to me that when you wrote your comment above you might have been unaware that an entity calling itself "the State of Vermont" existed for more than 14 years before Vermont was admitted to the Union, and so existed in 1785. Notice that the act of Congress admitting Vermont to the Union explicitly says that the entity that petitioned Congress for admission was "the State of Vermont": It says "The state of Vermont having petitioned the Congress to be admitted...." etc. – Michael Hardy Aug 16 '16 at 13:07
  • FWIW: The name "United States" was chosen specifically because before then they were considered separate states. – T.E.D. Aug 16 '16 at 14:12
  • @T.E.D. : I think the term "United States of America" may have first appeared in public in the writings of Thomas Paine (but I'm not sure), but in official documents I think it first appeared on July 4, 1776. At that time they were separate in the sense that they were not under a common government, since no federal government existed before 1781, but united in meeting together in Congress and united in the the war against Britain. I wonder if the word "states" was used much before that, rather than "colonies" and "provinces". – Michael Hardy Aug 16 '16 at 14:33
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My suspicion is that these are from some form of electoral roll or tax register, not a census proper - as noted, there's no obvious evidence of a 1785 census.

There was, however, a "Grand List" of some kind at the time, which survives today as the system for Vermont property tax. There is an example 1781 Grand List for Poulteney reproduced here, and it simply listed names and rateable value of the land.

They seem to have been a normal and widespread tool throughout Vermont at the time; from the proposed October 1785 Constitution, chapter II section VII, p. 47 here:

each organized town in this State, on the first Tuesday in September annually, shall have liberty to choose one able, discreet freeholder, to represent them in a county convention, to be held at such time and place as the Legislature shall by law, appoint; the members of which convention, when met, shall, by ballot, elect from their own body so many of said representatives (to consist of persons most noted for wisdom and virture) as the Legislature shall, in future, limit, having respect to the grand list of each county, in apportioning the number...

Thus the "grand list" was constructed in such a way that it could be used to apportion population between counties - doing so by number of households might have been a fair approximation to doing it by actual population.

The county "census lists" linked here only name heads of houses, and this would fit well with someone going through such a list and taking down the names of all the property-holders.

I strongly suspect that this is the source of what's being reported here as a "census", possibly with some of the details having been lost when transcriptions were passed from one person to another, but of course it's not really possible to prove that either way!


edit: we can, though, demonstrate it isn't just a copy of the 1790 census that's been misattributed as 1785. This 1785 list has Ferrisburgh, Addison County. This page has the 1790 census transcription.

It's noticeable that the 1790 one is missing several names (eg Bingham, Brush) that are present on the "1785" one. This strongly suggests it was from a different period, and the fact it has 29 households rather than 80 in the 1790 document suggests it was earlier (though it's always possible it's later and fragmented for some reason). This does feel consistent with it being actually circa 1785, though.

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Perhaps this answer will not lay the matter to rest forever, but I wrote to the Vermont Historical Society about this web page's assertion. Someone there who was conversant with the history of Vermont in the 1780s was unaware of any 1785 census, and wrote to the maintainer of the web page about it. The email bounced.

The web page reports with specificity names of some persons counted in specified towns in Vermont, and that gives it an appearance of credibility. But at this point I'm guessing there was a mistake about the date and those records are from the 1790 census of the United States (which did not reach Vermont until 1791).

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