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1840 Census Was First to Collect Data on Veteran Status and Only Men Were Considered Veterans Through Most of the Nation’s History

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In 1841, for the first time, the U.S. Census Bureau published information about veterans in a special bound volume on the men who served in the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, and other American conflicts.

Although it had been nearly 60 years since the American Revolution had ended, the compendium (now available online) listed the surviving pensioners, including widows, of that war. 

Who was counted as a veteran depended on when and where a man served in the U.S. armed forces. And, yes, for most of the nation’s history, only men were considered veterans. 

In the 18 decades that followed, the data that the Census Bureau collected about veterans continually shifted and expanded, providing a historical record of just how much the definition of military service has been redefined over centuries.

Who was counted as a veteran depended on when and where a man served in the U.S. armed forces. And, yes, for most of the nation’s history, only men were considered veterans.

It wasn’t until 50 years later, in 1890, that another census collected data on veteran status. That census identified only veterans of the Civil War and the widows of Union and Confederate ex-service members.

At that time, the main reason for classifying veterans in the United States was for determining pension eligibility. As veterans benefits expanded in the early 1900s, the importance of including veterans data in the decennial census also increased, particularly to track whether veterans were engaged in military operations or were killed in action and left surviving widows and children.

For decades, the decennial census only classified as veterans the men who served during wartime or went abroad as part of a military operation. By 1930, the definition of a veteran expanded to include men who served on military expeditions, which included the Spanish-American War (1898), Philippine Insurrection (1899–1902), Boxer Rebellion (1900–1901), and Mexican Expedition (1916–1917).

Men who served in peacetime, or who did not experience combat or service overseas, were not counted as veterans. 

Major Turning Points in How We Classified Veterans

Starting in 1930, veteran questions appeared on every decennial census to varying degrees until the 2000 Census. With the end of World War II in 1945, the nation faced a burgeoning veteran population as most of the 16.1 million men who served during the war returned to civilian life. The influx of veterans further fueled the need for data on military service and experiences. 


The 1940 Census marked a significant turning point in how the Census Bureau defined and collected data on veterans. For the first time, the census included peacetime service, specified whether a veteran had served on active duty, and in which branch, for any length of time regardless of duty location (United States or abroad).

This was the broadest definition of a veteran and military service to date. Since military pensions were still a focus, the 1940 Census included dependents of ex-service members in the count of veterans and determined the mortality status of veteran husbands and fathers.

History of Veterans Data on the U.S. Census

Before 1940, the decennial census had been primarily concerned with identifying how and where veterans served, and consequently counted men as veterans only if they met certain conditions (i.e., service in a specific war, branch, or military expedition). The 1940 Census shifted the focus to who served and when they did so, including both wartime and peacetime service. 


The “who” of military service changed again in 1980, when the census counted women as veterans for the first time. Women had long been connected to the U.S. military, even before they could formally serve or were recognized as veterans for their service.

A report on the history of women veterans from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) writes that although not recognized as veterans until 1980, women served on the battlefield alongside men during the American Revolution — some even masquerading as men. Some women served as spies during the Civil War but their main contributions were in the field of medicine.

“The nurses who served during the Spanish-American War paved the way for the creation of a permanent corps of nurses in the Army and Navy. In 1901, the Army Nurse Corps (ANC) was established,” according to the VA.

Counting women as veterans marked a major shift in the way the Census Bureau measured the veteran population. Until that point, only men were considered to be veterans regardless of the military service or experiences of women.

Today’s Veterans

With the implementation of the American Community Survey (ACS) in 2005, the 2000 Census was the last decennial census to collect data on veteran status for the United States (the Census Bureau continues to collect it for the Island Areas Censuses).

The ACS further expanded the “what” and “when” of veteran status by including questions on all possible periods of service, specifying each wartime period and delineating peacetime periods. The 2022 ACS shows there are 14.5 million men and 1.7 million women veterans. In 1950, the White population made up about 93% of veterans. Today that figure is around 74%, which reflects in part the changing racial composition of the broader U.S. population.

The ACS also collected information on:

  • Length of active-duty service.
  • Time of most recent service in the U.S. armed forces.
  • Current active-duty service (rather than just service in the past).
  • Service-connected disability status and rating of veterans who sustained an injury or became disabled because of their service.

This content, although it has changed in wording and scope, has remained the focus of veterans data at the Census Bureau since the ACS began.

In addition to the ACS, other Census Bureau surveys have expanded data collected on veterans. The Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) is the only Census Bureau source of data on participation in VA programs and benefits. The types of veterans data collected in SIPP include:

  • Use of the GI Bill.
  • Home loans secured through the VA.
  • Military retirement.
  • VA pension.
  • Disability compensation, which are widely available to former service members, their dependents, and surviving family members of deceased veterans.

Just as earlier censuses reflect the changing definition of a veteran, today’s data on disability, pensions and other VA benefits reflect the need to better understand not just who veterans are, but their health and well-being.

As military service, roles and experiences continue to evolve, the Census Bureau will continue to adapt its data collection to better understand the changing needs of the men and women who serve in America’s armed forces. 

Jonathan Vespa is a demographer in the U.S. Census Bureau’s Social, Economic, and Housing Statistics Division.


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Page Last Revised - November 13, 2023
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