Just after the American Revolution, Gilmanton, N.H., ranked as the 30th biggest municipality in the United States. The Lakes Region town was bigger than Pittsburgh, Portland, Raleigh, Trenton, Louisville, Cincinnati and Savannah, according to the 1790 census.
New Hampshire, in fact, had four towns among the 30 largest in the country, including Londonderry, Portsmouth and Rochester. Only four New England states belonged to the union then, but they were home to 19 of the 30 biggest cities and towns in the country. Back then, one in four U.S. citizens lived in New England.
The region’s power and influence in the early Republic can be inferred from the 1790 census, the first taken in the United States. It didn’t last long. The westward migration had already begun in 1787, from a minister’s house in Ipswich, Mass. As people migrated west for land and opportunity, new cities and towns began to eclipse those of New England.
The 1790 Census
In 1790, there were 93,000 people living in Connecticut, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, including the District of Maine. A year after the federal government took the 1790 census, 86,000 Vermonters officially joined New England.
Massachusetts alone held nearly 10 percent of the U.S. population, and Boston ranked as the third biggest municipality. Only New York and Philadelphia had more people. Census takers counted Boston’s population at 18,320 — about the size of contemporary Hopkinton, Mass.
Today, only 2.1 percent of the U.S. population lives in Massachusetts, and Boston has slipped to the 24th biggest city.
Census taking in 1790 was an inexact science. Congress ordered U.S. marshals to take it. Each state had only one marshal, so the marshal appointed assistants to count people. The 650 enumerators had nine months to collect the data and post the results in two public places. Then they stored the results in the federal courthouse.
The U.S. marshals in New England included Maj. Gen. Henry Dearborn for Maine, Jonathan Jackson for Massachusetts, John Parker for New Hampshire, William Peck for Rhode Island and Philip Bradley for Connecticut.
Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both questioned whether the census could count everyone. During a time of difficult travel and communication, the enumerators probably missed some people. And they deliberately missed all Indians not taxed, for example.
In the end, the census takers managed to count just under 4 million people.
Urban vs. Rural
The vast majority of Americans lived in the country in 1790. New Hampshire was one of the more urban states, with more towns in the Top 30 rankings than Connecticut, which only had New Haven and Hartford. New Hampshire, in fact, had more municipalities in the Top 30 than Pennsylvania, which had almost three times the population.
Today, New Hampshire’s biggest city – Manchester – ranks 259th, the only New Hampshire municipality among the top 300 U.S. cities.
Massachusetts was similarly urban, though some towns had not yet started to grow into cities – Worcester, Springfield and Fall River, for example, were all smaller than Gilmanton, N.H. Lowell didn’t even exist.
But the towns in Massachusetts that ranked in the top 30 might surprise you. In ascending order, they were Plymouth, Beverly, New Bedford, Taunton, Middleborough, Sherburne, Newburyport, Gloucester, Marblehead and Salem. Salem was bigger than Richmond, Va., and Albany, N.Y. Middleborough, Mass., was also bigger than Albany.
New England, in fact, had five of the 10 largest urban places in the United States: Boston, Salem, Mass.; Newport, R.I.; Providence, R.I., and Marblehead, Mass.
Connecticut had a significantly more rural character then than it does now. New Hampshire’s population was denser, especially along the southern border. The Connecticut towns of Stamford, Waterbury and Danbury had fewer people than Gilmanton. Bridgeport, now Connecticut’s biggest city, wouldn’t incorporate for another 30 years.
The center of the U.S. population has steadily moved west and slightly south, as people migrated and new states joined the union. New England’s presence steadily declined.
Ten years after the 1790 census, only 15 New England cities ranked in the top 30, despite having added Vermont. And in 1820, New England had just 13 of the biggest cities and towns.
In 1790, Massachusetts had 9.7 percent of the U.S. population. Twenty years later it had only 6.5 percent, as four states had joined the union. And in 229 years, the Bay State has slipped from fourth to 15th place.
Gilmanton has grown a little from its base of 2,613 in 1790, when it had an ironworks and a half-dozen villages and parishes. In 2017, 3,734 lived in the town. But Gilmanton never again appeared on the list of the top 30 cities and towns in the United States.
For a list of the Top 30 cities, click here.
This story was updated in 2021.