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How to study history through the census returns.

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Matilda Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Dec-05-11 09:24 PM
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How to study history through the census returns.
I've been tracing my ancestry for about ten years now - I don't post here, although I read sometimes, because my family were British, Dutch and German immigrants who all ended up in Australia. Possibly some distant relatives who dropped off the radar in Britain may have emigrated to Canada or the U.S., but I don't have worldwide membership on Ancestry.com, so I can't track them.

I don't know what is shown on the American census forms (for genealogical purposes, the Australian census is useless), but the British census, for those of you whose forebears came from Britain, can give you a great deal of information not only about just where your ancestors lived, but about the community they lived in. When you've found your ancestors' census information, spend some time looking at the professions of their neighbours. From their occupations, you can get a feeling for the type of community they lived in and build a mental picture of the surrounding area - working/labouring class; craftsmen and artisans; middle-class, etc. In those days of rigid social boundaries, people of like social groups all grouped together.

One of my ancestors had a grocer's shop just outside an area of London known as "Devil's Acre", an area behind Westminster Abbey that was full of cut-throats, thieves, prostitutes and other vagabonds. It got its name from the time when the Abbey was a recognised sanctuary, and miscreants on the run from the law took refuge there. When they felt it was safe to leave sanctuary, they moved into the area immediately behind the Abbey, and so it gradually got its rather fearsome reputation. I was looking up my ancestor in the 1861 census, and I followed the streets that were part of Devil's Acre to see what it said about the people, and there were whole houses full of people who declined to give a name or an occupation (although they didn't mind giving their ages), and you can only imagine what they might have done for a living. The census painted such a strong image of the area, I could really feel for the poor census enumerator, who would have just wanted to be done with it and get out of there, I'm sure.

It's also interesting to follow the streets around the old docklands area of London - this is where you had the dock labourers living; men who often listed their occupation as "unemployed labourer", and you know that this area was full of people who lived from day to day, hoping to get the few pence each night for their lodging. Penniless couples with many children, because there was no form of family planning, and you look at their entries and know they had no hope. And inevitably, these areas are where crime flourished. No welfare then, and precious little charity.

Looking at the entries for the Workhouses can break your heart - many old people, especially elderly widows, who had no pensions and no family to support them, and many small children - some with a mother or even a father, but so many of them, as young as twelve months, all alone. By the age of seven, children disappeared from the Workhouse registers when they were apprenticed out. I found one young girl, who had the same name as my gr-grandmother's sister, working as a thirteen-year-old at Windsor Castle, home of the British Royal Family. My socialist tendencies came to the fore - that, I thought, is how they lived in such style, by employing children who should have been in school.

It's a diversion from the main game, of course, but it's worth taking a little time to explore the census a little more fully, and see what you can learn of the places and times of your forebears. It's a wonderful lesson in social and economic history, and the census, with its little family biographies, is more alive than mere facts and figures can ever be.
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csziggy Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Dec-06-11 02:00 AM
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1. American census vary depending on what year they were taken
For various reasons, the American census were more or less detailed at different points in time. Until 1850 only the head of household was listed by name and the other members of the household were only indicated by sex and age with separate counting of different races and slaves.

In 1850 not only were all the members of the household listed so was the occupation, birth and other personal details such as if they had been married within the year and if they could read or write. There was a separate form for listing slaves by sex and age. Some slave owners did not just give that information but also included their names and family groupings.

By the 1880 census there were categories for where both parents were born - very useful when trying to track a person back farther in time.

If you want some of those names that might be in the US or Canada checked on Ancestry, PM me. I got a World membership to follow some of my Canadian, Welsh and Scottish ancestors - I've taken some of the Canadians back to Scotland and Yorkshire on the branches we could not take back very far along before. Not all were traced completely through Ancestry, but that is where I got a lot of the info.
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The Genealogist Donating Member (495 posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Dec-07-11 01:29 AM
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2. In addition to the US federal censuses
the states did censuses as well. Not sure what states, if any still do them. However, some of the state censuses ask for far more detailed information than the federal. Some give religion, mother's maiden name, length of time spent in the state and more. Another perk is that they don't generally happen in the same year as the US census. US census is done every 10 years, in years ending in zero. Many state censuses were done in years ending in five. Very helpful to have the extra information. The formats also vary. I think it is the South Dakota state censuses (at least some) were done on cards, so each individual has a card with his or her information on it. I really like that format.
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CBHagman Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Dec-07-11 09:20 AM
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3. Fascinating original post.
Gleaning the impressions of life in 19th century London (e.g., from Scotland Yard investigations, from Dickens) are harrowing enough, but your account really brings it all home.

In the 1880 U.S. Census I found an entry for my great-uncle, then just 9 years old. He's identified as a slate picker, and I had no idea what a slate picker's life was like until I went to the Library of Congress to view a book, now out of print, that one of my relatives had written about our Irish immigrant ancestors in Scranton, PA, particularly the accounts of the daily lives of the breaker boys and slate pickers. My great-grandmother was then in school, while her younger brother went out and did work that would have left his hands bleeding and his back aching.

As for the political angle, here in the U.S. there's a book (called The Good Old Days -- They Were Terrible!) The title says it all.

Getting back to your topic, the U.S. Census has been invaluable to me (Without it I likely would never have found a second cousin living in an adjoining state and also researching the same branch of the family), and though it's not foolproof (My Irish great-great-grandfather appears in the 1870 and 1900 listings, but not in 1880), it can be great for comparison purposes and also of course for establishing links and relationships and even moving patterns.

Family Tree magazine in the United States has done a number of fine articles about how to use the Census.
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