My Desires to Know and to Learn
One day my dad and I were talking about his young life, the absence of his mother early on and her mysterious death at age 32 that had left him and his family with unanswered questions. We also visited my paternal great grandmother about once a month for many years. She lived in the Home for Incurables in Washington, D.C., for about 25 years after becoming crippled with arthritis and abandoned by her husband of 33 years, never to be heard from again. And then there was my maternal great grandfather who I had heard was one of the last two remaining soldiers who fought in the American Indian Wars. And yet, he married a full-blooded Cherokee bride, and after many years of marriage retreated to the National Soldier’s Home and lived there for about 30 years. Family referred to him as a disgruntled old man or “habitually intemperate.” There were so many sketchy and questionable stories that seemed to naturally arouse my curiosities and had left me feeling incomplete about who I was and what I could share with my children and the rest of my family about our heritage. Then in 1980, came our eldest son’s 8th grade family history school project, where he had to draw his family tree as far back as he could and he began asking questions–some we could answer, others we couldn’t, and the completed information in the tree went back only to grandparents. He had some names of earlier generations, but not enough specifics to include them in his tree. That was the final impetus that set me on my path to being our family’s historian.
My First Resources
The facts I collected and recorded from the United States censuses became absolutely key resources for me when I began my serious research into our family’s histories. Yes, it was January 1980, and coincidentally I had just joined the Census Bureau’s staff and had completed a brief new employee orientation that included a bit about the origin of the census and the agency. I learned that the first United States Census was conducted in 1790 and at 10-year intervals ever since then. Thus, Census 2010 was the 22nd census of population.
In the Spring of 1980, 36 years ago, I first trekked to the National Archives in Washington, D.C. There on weekends, I used their family coding system and microfilm machines to scroll through hundreds of reels of film that contained copies of the original census forms. I remember being inside the Archives on a warm and sunny day, researching family and hearing bands and people cheering the Easter Paraders passing by outside on Pennsylvania and Constitution Avenues.
Using microfilm was a long and tedious, mental and eye-straining process. I would copy by hand the facts I found and make notes on lined paper, then take this work home and transcribe it using a typewriter. Each little factoid I found exhilarated me so much that I would persevere and I kept trudging along at a snail’s pace uncovering just the tiniest of bread crumbs along my journey.
To give you a better idea of what I was up against, in 1983, the most recent census data available to the public was from the 1910 Census. This was due to the “72-Year Rule,” where the National Archives was not allowed to release census records to the general public until 72 years after Census Day (about a person’s lifetime when originally established)–this holds true til this day. As a result, the 1940 census records were released April 2, 2012 and remain the most current census data available. So, this 70+ year gap in data didn’t make it easy to uncover facts about people who came 3 to 4 generations before me. But, a known birth state here, a remembered relative’s name there, was enough to get me started.
Technology Advances My Research
It was also in 1983 when Ancestry Publishing was founded–the precursor to today’s Ancestry.com. But, it wasn’t until 1996 that Ancestry.com was launched. Ancestry developed efficient and proprietary systems for digitizing handwritten historical documents, established relationships with national, state and local government archives, historical societies, religious institutions, and private collectors of historical content around the world. These profound advances in technology and genealogical research occurred at a time when my family commitments had forced me to take a brief hiatus from my research. But my desire to continue my research never faltered and sometime shortly thereafter that I first subscribed to Ancestry.com and my family tree began to grow by leaps and bounds.
In 2001, Ancestry.com added its one-billionth record to its site and it resources. Today, my public tree has over 12,000 records, about 600 family photos, many copies of newspaper clippings from yesteryear, copies of birth and death certificates, and various family documents and stories.
Surprises Along My Way
With all this being said, I’m not quite sure why people seem to remain “up in arms” about today’s “invasive” census questions. Especially, when my research gave me the opportunities to compare questionnaires and schedules going back over 200 years with today’s slimmed and trimmed down questions and forms.
For example, the seventh U.S. Census of Population was conducted by U.S. Marshals and Assistant Marshals in 1850. It was the first census where Marshals recorded names, relationship to head of household, age, sex, and color for all persons living in each household. These census takers were also required to ask the head of each household about each individual’s full health. If the head of a household (usually the husband, father, or other male relative) claimed an individual was deaf and dumb, blind, insane, or idiotic the census taker also recorded this in a separate column designated(column 13, below).
Additionally, there was a separate 1850 schedule relating to numbers of slave inhabitants. The forms collected the names of slave owners; number of slaves; the slaves color, sex, age, and whether deaf and dumb, blind, insane, or idiotic; and the numbers of fugitives from the state. The 1860 census is the last federal census where slaves were enumerated. Unfortunately, they were not enumerated by name but by quantity with their owner–only on a rare occasion did I find a name listed.
Wretched Terms Used to Describe Family Members Health
Then, in the 1880 Census, (and only the 1880 Census), there was a “Special Schedule of Defective, Dependent, and Delinquent Classes (sometimes called the DDD or 3D Schedule). When an enumerator recorded a health issue on the census of population form, he would then have to fill in this 3D Schedule to further clarify an individual’s defect, dependency, or delinquency; successively, for all individuals with any of these conditions. In fact, there were seven categories used to classify “health” conditions:
Insane: The schedule lists the “form” of the person’s insanity (melancholia, mania, epilepsy, etc.), history of “attacks,” if they need to be under lock and key, type of restraints (if any), and history of institutionalization.
It’s important to remember that it was often a family member giving information about the “insane” person and understanding mental health could be quite subjective. Even Epilepsy was considered a form of insanity, as was postpartum depression. Even veterans of the Civil or Indian Wars could have been classified as “insane,” where in later years we might have described them as “shell-shocked (from WWI and WWII), or in later wars as suffering from PTSD.
Idiots: An idiot for this schedule was defined as “a person the development of whose mental faculties was arrested in infancy or childhood before coming to maturity.” Questions included if the person was self-supporting, age at which idiocy occurred, supposed cause of idiocy, size of head, training school history, and other disabilities the person had. Let’s see, this classification probably included children with Downs Syndrome, autism, ADD, and ADHD, or for that matter, just spoiled, ill-tempered brats.
Deaf-mutes: Enumerators were tasked with not listing those who were only deaf or hard-of-hearing or those who were only mute. “A deaf-mute is one who cannot speak, because he cannot hear sufficiently well to learn to speak.” Information includes whether he or she was self-supporting, age that deafness occurred, supposed cause of deafness, history of institutions, and other disabilities. Helen Keller would have fit into this category.
Blind: The semi-blind could be included, but not those who could see well enough to read. The form asked if the person was self-supporting, form of blindness, supposed cause, the age that blindness occurred, institutional information, and other disabilities.
These next categories were used to enumerate people in institutions, poor houses, and boarding homes:
Homeless Children: Rather than homeless children, it was for children in institutions (children’s homes, poorhouses, etc.) Information included their residence when not in the home, if the father and/or mother were deceased, if the child was abandoned, if the parents had surrendered control to the institution, if they were born in the institution, year admitted, if the child was separated from his/her mother, the child’s criminal history, and disabilities.
Inhabitants in Prison: This section gave information about the prisoner’s residence, type of prisoner, why they are in prison (awaiting trial, serving a term, etc.), date of incarceration, alleged offense, sentence, and if the prisoner was at hard labor.
Paupers and Indigent: Similar to the Homeless Children section, this part of the schedule was for those who were “in institutions, poor-houses or asylums, or boarded at public expense in private houses.” Information included residence “when at home,” how he or she was supported; if the person was able-bodied, habitually intemperate, epileptic, or a convicted criminal; disabilities; year admitted; and other family members in the institution (spouse, parents, children, and siblings). There was also a section at the end about the institution itself.
So there you have it. I have gathered so much information about our past and yet there is so much more to be learned from these antiquities about our families lives and times. I will say, if I God called me home today that those in my family who have an interest in their family’s history would be given a great starting point from which to continue on–that is unless the suspicious and conspiracy theorists about our government’s intentions and uses of data collected squelch the availability of future genealogical resources such as these.
And, yes, I discovered where my father’s mother went to live, that she was a “Rosie the Riveter,” and her official cause of death was chronic alcoholism; I found my paternal great grandfather’s death information from the 1970’s in Las Vegas and have even gotten to know, to love, and maintain contact with my new family members from my great grandfather’s second family that he built while in Vegas; and was led to an unknown uncle from my maternal grandfather’s first family in Hawaii, which we knew nothing about. I also found many colonial leaders–settlers from what is now Great Britain–statesmen, lawyers, musicians, and many fascinating and larger than life characters. And my stories will continue as long as I am still here to research and write them . . .
Words from: Robert M. Groves, Director of the United States Census Bureau at the time of the 2010 Census–our most recent: