Thursday, February 3, 2011

Things I've Learned From the Census

1790 US Census for my 5th great grandfather,
Timothy Halstead, in Montgomery, Ulster Co., NY
It shows that he did not own slaves, but several
of his neighbors did.
I'll bet that when you were filling out your 2010 US Census document last year you didn't think about how that mundane information just might help one of your descendants in their family history research. Genealogists spend a LOT of time digging through census data and, frankly, I don't think we'd know what to do without it. It helps us link the generations of our family, understand where our people came from, learn about occupations of our ancestors, confirm (or dispel) data found elsewhere and much, much more.

First, it helps to have a little back story about the census, itself.  As mandated by the United States Constitution, the population is enumerated every 10 years and the results are used to allocate Congressional seats, electoral votes and government funding. Some states and local jurisdictions also conduct their own censuses.

While some state and local censuses were taken before the American Revolution, the first US census was taken in 1790. The US census has been taken every ten years since then. The first two censuses were basically a head count and obtained the name of the head of household and number of other males and females who resided there. The 1790 census asked for the following:
  • Number of white males over/under age of 16
  • Number of white females
  • Number of other free persons
  • Number of slaves
Censuses from subsequent years began expanding on the information sought from residents and help us to better flesh out the story of our ancestors and our nation. Starting in 1850, the census started counting each member of a residence individually, including women, children and slaves, and how they related to the head of the household. That year, people were asked questions about the value of their property, marriage status and if they were "deaf, dumb, blind, insane, idiotic, pauper, or convict?"

1850 US Census for my 5th great
grandparents, Joseph and Elizabeth Rooks,
in Grundy County, MO
In 1870, residents were asked about where their parents were born and could the resident read or write.

In 1890, even more questions were added, including "How many children was the person a mother of? How many of those children were living?" Unfortunately, most of the 1890 census was destroyed in 1921 during a fire in the basement of the Commerce Building in Washington, D.C.

In 1900, the government thought to ask how long each couple had been married (giving us genealogists a clue regarding marriage dates -- yay!).

In 1930, the most recent census that has been made available to the general public, each household was asked if it owned a radio. People were also asked if they lived on a farm NOW, and if they lived on a farm A YEAR AGO -- likely to help determine migration patterns from the country to the cities.

The 1940 census results are scheduled for release to the public in 2012.  We family historians are waiting on pins and needles so we can continue to learn more about our great grandparents, grandparents and, for some folks, even our own parents, including whether or not they had a Social Security number (Social Security began in 1935, and applications can offer us invaluable information). 

I still find bits of curious -- and crucial -- data on my people each time I take another look at a census document. Here are a few interesting items I've dug up in these deceptively fascinating records.
GG Grandfather Frederick Harmon Brittain was in two different places during the 1900 US Census, and one of those places was the US Jail in Muskogee, OK.  I'm still not sure how he ended up in jail, and I don't know if he had been released prior to being enumerated at home on June 16, or if his wife or one of the children erroneously listed him as living at home at that time.
Frederick Harmon Brittain in jail on June 1, 1900
Township 1, Creek Nation, Indian Territory, US Jail Muscogee. Enumerated on June 1, 1900
Frederick H. Brittain is listed, among many other men, as a "boarder."
His birth date and place are correct, as well as other identifying information.
 Frederick Harmon Brittain at home on June 16, 1900
Township 16, Creek Nation, Indian Territory. Enumerated on June 16, 1900
Fred Brittain is listed with his family, including his wife, Mary J., and
his children (including my great grandfather Andrew Lee (Leander) Brittain.
Great Grandpa Louie (Lars Hansen Madsen) and his family were listed as owning a radio on the 1930 US census. Why was this important? There were reasons relating to broadcast law, but it's possible that it also helped to give an idea as to the family's, and the nation's, standard of living. 
1930 US Census for my great grandparents, Louis and Johanna
Madsen, in Murray Township, Alameda Co., CA. My
Grandma Donna, aged 10, and her brother and sister are also listed.
My GGG Grandparents, Andrew and Elizabeth Veale, had 11 children, but only five were living as of the 1900 census. Their 42 year old daughter, Lydia, was living with them, and the document shows that she could read, but not write. It also states that Andrew was a farm laborer, and both Elizabeth and Lydia were laundresses. All three were unemployed at the time of the census. It appears that these ancestors may have fallen on hard times. Both Andrew and Elizabeth died before the 1910 census, and Lydia passed away in 1913. 
1900 Census for my GGG grandparents, Andrew and Elizabeth Veale,
and their daughter, Lydia, in Maple Hill Township, Wabausee County, KS
And this is just the beginning! In addition to the US census data, there's also a lot of information out there from various state and local censuses. Even though the 1890 US census isn't available to me, I've been able to find information on my Bartram and Veale family from the 1885 and 1895 Kansas census.

While, on the surface, the census data can seem a bit mundane, I love how it's helped me to piece together the stories of my ancestors. I can tell when they've had good decades (shown, for example, by increased land ownership and births of children) and when they've fallen on hard times (shown by unemployment or, perhaps, by young children gone missing from censuses). When I use the census alongside the myriad other ancestral documentation that I'm lucky to unearth, I realize that I could fill a book -- or at least a blog! -- with some really cool stories about the people who came before me.

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