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Genealogy class re-enacts 1880 US Census Enumerations

Sept. 1, 2010 at 4:01 a.m.


By Martha Jones

Recently, students in the Continuing Education Genealogy 102 classes participated in the unique experience of assuming the role of census enumerators and practicing their skills taking the 1880 U.S. Federal Census. Sharron Torrence and Judie Allen portrayed a typical housewife in Laclede County, Missouri in June of 1880 and a typical census enumerator making his rounds and documenting residents of the county.

Typical census questions included: What is the name, age, sex, color, occupation and birthplace of each person residing in this house? Which of these individuals attended school or was married within the year? Who among them is deaf and dumb, blind, insane, "idiotic," a pauper, or a convict? Is there anyone in the household above school age who cannot read and write? What were the places of birth of the person's parents?

Genealogists readily turn to census records, which are considered among the most valuable resources for documenting family history. Although never intended for genealogical purposes, the federal censuses are the most used records of those looking for links with the past. The decennial U.S. Federal Census began in 1790 and has continued every 10 years, with the most recent being completed in 2010. For research purposes, the 1930 census is the most recent census available to the public because of the 72-year Privacy Act. The 1940 census will be made public in 2012.

Article I, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution required that an enumeration of the people be made within three years after the first meeting of the Congress, March 1790. Early censuses were essentially basic counts of inhabitants, but as the nation grew, so did the need for statistics that would reflect characteristics of the people and conditions under which they were living.

Beginning in 1790, there were only six basic questions: name of the head of the family and numbers of males and females divided into age brackets. By 1850, however, the forms had changed and enumerators were instructed to ask the age, sex, color, occupation, birthplace and other questions regarding every individual in every household. In 1880, birthplace of fathers and mothers of the inhabitants were added. The 1890 census suffered irreparable damage from a fire in Washington D.C. and only 1 percent of the records remained unharmed.

Following the Census Enumeration Reenactment, Genealogy 102 class members compared their recordings and discovered many truths regarding census records. Some of them included varied interpretations hearing the name Laclede County as "McCleen;" the recording of the Atchley surname with five different spellings; and the niece of Mrs. Atchley recorded as "niece," although Mr. Atchley was her third husband. The relationship was to be recorded as the relation to the head of the household. Needless to say, everyone who participated now has a great appreciation and regard for census enumerators and a greater understanding of census records.

Happy researching.

Send e-mail queries to mjones@vicad.com. Researcher in the Victoria County Genealogical Society will do simple genealogy look-ups.

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