Census: More Than a 10-Year Count

Prized by Researchers, the U.S. Census is History in the Making

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A page from the 1880 U.S. Census showing the head of household’s name, number of white males and females by age group, free blacks, and slaves. Image taken from Eastern Shore Public Library online genealogy records.

By Martha Wessells Steger
Special to the Eastern Shore Post

The 2020 United States census, the enumeration of all U.S. residents every 10 years as mandated by the U.S. Constitution, is important to the nation — and to the Eastern Shore — on two different levels.

“Family historians and genealogists,” says Stacia Childers, local history public services, Accomack County Public Library, “approach the census on a more individual basis as they look for specific family members, as opposed to historians and other researchers, who may be looking at a larger picture and overall trends.

“What most people refer to as the ‘census,’” Childers says, “is the population schedule,” i.e., the actual people-count; but she goes on to explain, “the 1850, 1860, 1870, and 1880 censuses had additional, non-population schedules: Agriculture, Mortality, Slave (1850 and 1860), (and) Manufacturing.”

A look at the U. S. government’s National Archives, which houses census reports among its documents, shows how census records — in the description on its website — “add ‘flesh’ to the bones of ancestors and provide information about the communities in which they lived.”

Agriculture, mortality, and social statistics, for example, are available for the census years of 1850, 1860, 1870, and 1880. (Manufacturing schedules are available for 1820 but don’t include  Accomack or Northampton counties – for unknown reasons. It could be any of multiple reasons, ranging from no one’s actually doing the manufacturing survey in the counties,  to the enumerator’s failing to turn in the results.)

The records are arranged by state, then by county, and then by political subdivision (township, city, etc.). Business information is available for 1935 for the industries including advertising agencies, banking and financial institutions, miscellaneous enterprises, motor trucking for hire, public warehousing, and radio broadcasting stations.

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Beyond Population: Explosion in Oystering During the Civil War
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The beyond-population information gathered as part of the census provides great additional insight into family ancestors as well as information for researchers.  The agricultural schedules reveal much about farm sizes, ownership (vs. tenant), and crops, and the mortality schedules about disease and causes of death.
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Miles Barnes, a retired librarian living in Onancock, is using the census and the non-population information gathered as part of it for research into economic trends on the Shore in the late 1800s to early 1900s. While Childers notes, “Even the casual observer comparing censuses will notice things like how the coming of the railroad affected the Shore, especially in the 1900 and 1910 censuses,” she defers to Barnes for in-depth census observations.
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Barnes’ observations show how readers who get beyond casual reading of census data can unearth engaging tidbits of information in addition to major economic trends. “One of the things I noticed,” he says, “was the growth of the oyster industry on the Shore when it really took off in the mid-nineteenth century. I counted individuals in the maritime trade (fishermen, oystermen, etc.) between 1850-1870. In 1850, there were 425 people in the maritime trade; in 1860, 644 people; in 1870, 1,094.  Between 1860-70 the oyster industry on both sides of Chincoteague Bay exploded – beginning to grow before the [Civil] War but really expanding during the war years. Out-of-state oystermen came from Maryland, Delaware, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut – and one from Maine.
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“We know why the maritime trades grew on the Eastern Shore during the period – urban growth combined with the transportation revolution and the depletion of northern oyster grounds.”
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Barnes further suspects the growth in oystering was related to the decline in Accomack’s total farm acreage. He used the federal agricultural censuses to explore change in Eastern Shore agriculture. “Between 1850 and 1870,” he says, “total farm acreage in Accomack County went down from 223,000 acres in 1850 to 162,000 in 1870.  I am not sure what caused that, but what I think is that young men were leaving farms for better money on the oyster grounds.”
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Northampton’s farm acreage went up because the oyster boom had not yet reached the lower peninsula. Eastern Shore farmers were also switching from grains to sweet potatoes, a crop that required less acreage.
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“Another thing I see is that the number of livestock kept during this period goes down in almost every category – the number of oxen goes down, but the number of horses goes up.  Because of the increasing availability of commercial fertilizer, less manure is needed so there aren’t as many grazing animals – that’s my educated guess,” he says, pointing out that the census creates questions as well as answers them.
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Once the railroad came through and the Eastern Shore Produce Exchange began in 1900 (chartered by the Virginia General Assembly in 1899) – “and oystermen saw the over-harvesting [of oyster grounds],” Barnes says agriculture began to rise again.
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Beyond Population: Slavery, Racial Insights
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“It is important to note,” Childers says, “that for the slave schedules, the enslaved are listed by age, sex and color (black or mulatto) only – no name — under the name of their enslaver.” In tracing ancestry, there is often controversy over how these show up in search results — or not. “The 1860 schedule for Accomack County — especially St. George Parish — is unique,” Childers adds, “in that the enumerator did his best to show slave hires…but there were no official records kept of the practice,” which makes the count difficult to ascertain. Famous slaveholders such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, as well as earlier owners, regularly hired-out their slaves as an additional farm-revenue stream, but little is known as to actual numbers because of the lack of record keeping.
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One thing to escape the fire that destroyed the 1890 census, according to Childers, was the 1890 Special Schedule of Union Veterans and Widows. “While there were a few white Union veterans on the Shore, mostly those having served with the 1st Loyal Virginia,” she says, “many of those appearing on this schedule for Accomack and Northampton counties were members of various United States Colored Troop regiments.  Some entries list injuries sustained.  We (the Eastern Shore Public Library) own Gail Walczyk’s transcription of this schedule, and it is available for interlibrary loan.”
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In the 1870 census, Barnes found, in Northampton County, a half-dozen black women and children born in Texas – families of Virginia men belonging to the Ninth & Tenth Regiments, United States Colored Troops, sent to the Rio Grande Valley after the Civil War. Something very few people know about, he said, is that during the Union occupation of the Shore, the federal army took a census of black and white residents, which is also available on microfilm at the Eastern Shore Public Library – but, like other census mysteries, no one knows why only the upper part of Accomack County survives.
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Childers credits local historians who have analyzed census records to try and understand life on the Shore: “James Mears did so in his essay, ‘The Eastern Shore of Virginia in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries,’ which appeared in the three-volume set, ‘The Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia,’ published in 1950.”
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Another local historian, the late Kirk Mariner, used the 1860 census to determine that on the eve of the Civil War a third of the black population of the Eastern Shore was free – one of the largest, if not the largest, population of free blacks in the commonwealth. Even in the pre-1850 censuses, valuable details surface, as detailed, in Luther Porter Jackson’s “Free Negro Labor & Property Holding in Virginia 1830-1860”; the research relies heavily on the census (and personal property taxes). On page 70, he writes that many free blacks lived not in their own homes, but in the homes of whites (a portion of these whites being indentured workers).
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“When you look at censuses for those years,” Childers says, “note the columns in the 1820, 1830 and 1840 censuses not only for slaves but for ‘free colored’ and the numbers that appear in white households.  Local author Bernard Herman used the census to recreate a neighborhood in order to bring context and understanding to one particular court case in early 1800s Delaware in his book, ‘The Stolen House.’”
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Barnes remembers that the daughter of the first African American justice on the U. S. Supreme Court — Thurgood Marshall, who served on the court from October 1967 until October 1991— came to the county library after her father’s death to confirm, through the Union Army Census, that her father descended from a native of Accomack County.
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Heads of Household vs. Entire Household
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Pre-1850 censuses name only the head of household. Others living in the household are indicated only by their age and number. Childers points out this can be misleading, as anyone living there may be counted, not necessarily nuclear family or even blood relatives. “If a household contains an indenture or other unrelated laborer, a cousin who is living there at the time, or a neighborhood orphan, they will be included in the household.
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Also, you can never assume the information in any census is 100 percent correct. You don’t know who is reporting the information (except in the 1940 where that was supposed to be noted.) For instance, if the enumerator shows up and the husband is at work, it might be the wife. If neither are home it might be an older child or even a neighbor. Especially for names, the enumerator may write the info as they hear it, so spellings may differ.  They may guess at or estimate ages, particularly since people even into the early 1900’s may not have known their actual date of birth.”
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Census records can’t be released to the public for 72 years so the 1950 census hasn’t yet been released, but Childers points out that the enumeration maps are digitized on the National Archives and Records Administration website — as are maps of enumeration districts, beginning in 1880. Enumeration maps – a resource for roads and buildings, some of which no longer exist – combined with information from other websites, help to put flesh on the dry bones of history when families and historians seek to re-create specific historical periods.
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Martha Wessells Steger grew up on a Greenbush farm and is a graduate of Parksley High School and the College of William & Mary.