Tennessee Mountain Stories

The Census Question

The media is abuzz with the 2020 census question, “Are you a US citizen?”  Now this is not a political blog and I’m not here to weigh in with my opinions.  However, as a (very) amateur genealogist I can’t help but think about the historical data we have in the census records.

Census-taking is an age-old practice.  Way back in King David’s time, he took a census of the people of Israel and got in a lot of trouble with the Lord for doing it.  God had been trying for ages to get His chosen people to trust Him, not the size of their army or depth of their coffers, yet King David was counting how many soldiers he could raise.  However, it wasn’t the act of counting the people that angered the Lord and in fact God had commanded Moses to count the people back in the book of Numbers (4:48).  Later Solomon would conduct a census specifically counting foreigners in the land and making representatives of that group to do their part in building the temple.

Of course the United States has been counting some of the people for centuries – it’s even commanded in the constitution.  In fact the first census was conducted just 2 years after the constitution was ratified.  Of course the colonials had already been numbered while they were still under British sovereignty.  Since then every 10 years America counts its people and asks all kinds of different questions.  That information has been saved (except a few records lost in fires such as nearly the entire 1890 census) and now we can look back at them and learn about our ancestors, our nation and our history. 

I’m willing to admit to you what a number-nerd I am when I tell you that I just love the census records.  I’ve shared with you no less than 10 times in Tennessee Mountain Stories things I’ve learned from studying census records.  From patterns in families and homes to mysterious, missing family members or long-forgotten neighbors, these door-to-door snapshots preserve an awful lot.

Of course the question at hand right now is not whether to count but the specific questions to ask.  Over the years the questions have changed and I really wish I knew the reasons for the specific questions, although it’s not too difficult to imagine some of them.

The 1840 census listed only heads of household by name, ‘number of free white persons’, and then ‘total all persons free-white, free-colored, [and] slaves’.     Contrast that to the 1810 census that asked only for ‘free white persons’ broken down in age groups then a single ‘number of household members’ total.  Because we are truly a nation of immigrants, until 1890 the Federal government seemed to only differentiate between free or enslaved people of color and everyone else was just “white”.

In 1890 we start getting a lot more detail, and frankly that’s when the records get more exciting for me.  Each individual began to be listed with birthplace questions as well as employment and education.  There is actually a question, “Is this person naturalized?” and “Has this person taken naturalization papers out?”  These questions certainly recognize the vast number of immigrants and seek to measure the progress toward citizenship. 

I find the questions about place of birth particularly fascinating because you can see the migration of family.  Maybe one parent was born abroad while another was born in the northern states.  Then 10 years later you see them married and maybe they’ve moved farther south.  Sometimes you can see deep roots as a family stays in one area decade after decade. 

I think I’ve mentioned before that one branch of my family moved to the Cumberland Plateau from Virginia with a few years’ layover in Anderson County, Tennessee.  When I look at the census records there are several different family names that made a similar trek and I wonder whether they were friends from back in Virginia.  Did they leave Virginia for the same reasons?  Were they travelling together and purposely settled in close proximity on the mountain?  I say it again and again, but I’m often left with more questions than answers – which just drives me to keep researching.

I don’t know what questions will finally be answered in 2020 and I can’t really imagine my descendants will be looking for if they pull those records in 50 years or more.  I’m just glad to know the data will be collected and I hope they have as much fun with it as I’ve had with the records from 1890 forward.