Hezekiah Stilley in the First Census of the United States

Just three of my sixty-four fourth great-grandparents were born in America.

Of those three, only two have ancestral lines that have so far been traced—hesitantly—as far back as 1790.

And only one of those two lines has been found to have been documented in the 1790 United States Federal Census, the first census of the United States.

That line begins with homesteader Nancy Stilley, who is believed to have been the daughter of Jordan Stilley, who in turn is believed to have been the son of Hezekiah Stilley.

Hezekiah Stilley, whose name was also spelled Ezekiah, was born circa 1760, and is believed to have married Sarah Davis circa 1784 in Hyde County, North Carolina. In January 1786, he appeared in a North Carolina census as head of a household in Hyde County that included one white male between the ages of twenty-one and sixty, and two white females of any age. That same year, his name appeared on a land grant that was entered for fifty acres of land in what was then Hyde County, located on the west side of the Pungo River. (The portion of Hyde County located west of the Pungo River has since been annexed to Beaufort County.) The land grant was issued in November 1789.

The 1790 United States Federal Census, which was recorded during George Washington’s presidency, was the first of its kind. According to the United States Census Bureau:

“Under the general direction of Thomas Jefferson, the Secretary of State, marshals took the census in the original 13 States, plus the districts of Kentucky, Maine, and Vermont, and the Southwest Territory (Tennessee). Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson expressed skepticism over the final count, expecting a number that exceeded the 3.9 million inhabitants counted in the census.”

One can hardly help imagining the roadblocks and grueling conditions that the intrepid census enumerators must have encountered in their attempts to make record of each and every American. There were almost certainly individuals who simply did not want to be found, and others who may have been suspicious as to the motives of the government in recording their names and the numbers of their households. There were undoubtedly difficulties in reaching the inhabitants of far-flung communities, particularly on the frontier, but elsewhere as well. The Pungo River, for example, upon with Hezekiah Stilley dwelled, had its source in the Great Dismal Swamp, and according to a 1775 map was in fact on the fringes of what was then called the “Great Alligator Dismal Swamp”—surely not an easy place to traverse. It seems that a dramatic undercount in the nation’s first census was all but guaranteed.

In Hyde County, North Carolina, however, the 1790 United States Federal Census did include the household of one “Ezekiel Stilley.” If it can be assumed that the formal handwritten census schedule was based off of notes taken by the census enumerator as he visited each household, it can easily be surmised that the name Ezekiah could have been erroneously transcribed as Ezekiel. Both Hezekiah’s land grant and the fact that the names of many neighbors are consistent with the North Carolina census recorded in 1786 suggest that Ezekiah and Ezekiel were one and the same person.

In this household lived one adult male over the age of sixteen, three males under the age of sixteen, and two females of any age. This suggests a family unit consisting of Hezekiah, Sarah, three sons, and a daughter, although it is possible that other individuals, related or not, could have made up their household. No other free persons or enslaved people were present.

Hezekiah Stilley was recorded in a federal census for the last time in 1800. At that time, by then perhaps about forty years of age, he was still a resident of Hyde County, and his household now numbered eight individuals. Shortly thereafter, he and his family would leave North Carolina for good.

In 1807, Hezekiah submitted a squatter’s petition for three hundred and twenty acres of land in what is present-day Cave-in-Rock Township, Hardin County, Illinois, located near the Ohio River on the border with Kentucky. Notably, his name was absent from an 1812 petition that bore the names of several members of his extended family who had settled in Illinois as well. It has been assumed that he died in Illinois Territory prior to this date, far from the Carolina coastal region where he had spent most of his married life.

Copyright © 2020 Melanie Frick. All Rights Reserved.


“History of Beaufort County, North Carolina,” North Carolina GenWeb (http://www.ncgenweb.us/beaufort/bohistory.htm : accessed 30 March 2020).

“North Carolina, Land Grant Files, 1693-1960,” Ezekiah Stilly, Hyde, 1789; digital images, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 30 March 2020), citing North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh.

“North Carolina, Wills and Probate Records, 1665-1998,” digital images, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 30 March 2020), entry for William Davis Sr., 1803; citing Hyde County Estate Records, North Carolina Superior Court, Hyde County.

“U.S. Census Reconstructed Records, 1660-1820,” database, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 30 March 2020), entries for David Stilley, John Stilley, and Stephen Stilley, 1812, Big Creek Settlement, Illinois Territory; citing Territorial Papers of the United States, vol. 16, p. 274.

William Douglas Stilley, The William Davis Stilley and Nancy Swofford-Stilley Family History and Genealogy (Raytown, Missouri: 1978); digital images, Family Search Library (https://www.familysearch.org/library/books/records/item/334017-the-william-davis-stilley-and-nancy-swofford-stilley-family-history-and-genealogy : accessed 30 March 2020).

“1786 Hyde County, North Carolina, Census,” entry for Ezekiah Stilley, North Carolina GenWeb (http://www.ncgenweb.us/hyde/census/1786/HYD1786C.HTM : accessed 30 March 2020).

“1790 Overview,” United States Census Bureau (https://www.census.gov/history/www/through_the_decades/overview/1790.html : accessed 30 March 2020).

1790 U.S. census, Hyde County, North Carolina, population schedule, Ezekiel Stilley; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 30 March 2020), citing National Archives microfilm M637, roll 7.

1800 U.S. census, Hyde County, North Carolina, population schedule, Hezekiah Stilley; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 30 March 2020), citing National Archives microfilm M32, roll 34.

4 thoughts on “Hezekiah Stilley in the First Census of the United States

  1. Nancy

    I can only begin to imagine the challenges those first census takers faced! As you suggest, unwilling citizens, challenging terrain, and knowing where people lived in unpopulated areas must have made their jobs incredibly difficult. I’m so glad census records evolved into ones with names of all whole lived in the home and included relationships in later decades. Great research on your part, Melanie.

    1. Melanie Frick Post author

      Thank you, Nancy! There’s a children’s book called Tricking the Tallyman that I think gives a particularly cute and colorful look at just how suspicious people may have been of the first census takers. I love the detail of the later censuses – eventually even including whether the household had a radio or not!


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