Why is the Census Important to Historians?

The decennial census goes back to 1790 and is a tangible record of the people living in the United States. For historians, this record can help trace family histories, track societal changes over decades, and provide information about individuals throughout history who have few records left behind such as immigrants, people of color, and the poor or other marginalized communities. Sometimes the only historical document a person appears in, is a census. Even if a person could not write, there is a great chance they appear in at least one census, keeping a small portion of their legacy alive.   

Previous censuses in the United States are released every 72 years to the public. The 1940 census was released in 2012 and the 1950 census is set to be released in April 2022. The information contained within the censuses can tell historians and genealogists information about the movement of people, their jobs, how many children they had, and their age. Of course, due to the way in which the census was conducted before 1960, the information collected can be incorrect, either deliberately or unintentionally. When a census worker came to collect information, whoever answered the door was often the one providing the information. In some cases, children or even someone just visiting the family imparted what information they believed to be true or they just guessed.

If the family was gone when the enumerator arrived, a neighbor likely answered the questions. In some cases, the census workers misspelled names due to mishearing what was said or not asking how the family spelled it. Ages often became a problem when a household member answering the questions did not know the ages of the others or they deliberately lied. An article published in the Cañon City Record on May 17, 1900 expands on this issue:      

Lie About Their Ages

One Serious Difficulty the Confronts Census Enumerators

The most difficult task of a census enumerator is to obtain information about the ages of people. It is assumed that a woman may lie about her age and a man about the fish he catches without committing sin, but the phenomenon goes still further. Young people usually want to be considered old, middle-aged people report themselves younger than they are and very old people will add a few years to their actual age. Children under fifteen throw their ages forward to sixteen, girls stretch a point to be eighteen and boys nineteen or more always like to be considered men. Therefore the age returns of a census are usually more incorrect than any other, and it is impossible to determine accurately whether the average duration of life is increasing or decreasing…

However, just because information may be incorrect, it does not diminish the value of the census. Here at the museum we use a variety of sources to collect information but a census shows where people were and what they were doing each decade. Let’s look at Talieferro “T.” Witcher, a rancher who lived in Fremont County for many years. By looking at the 1850 census, we see that he was 8 years old putting his estimated birth year at 1842. The census day in 1850 was on June 1. Witcher’s obituary lists his birthdate as December 2, 1842 so he was actually 7 at the time of the census but overall the age and birth year are accurate. He lived with his parents in North Carolina, which was also his birth place. By the 1860 census, his family moved to Georgia. T. Witcher is 17 and listed as a student. By looking at the 1910 census, which inquired if a person was a survivor of the Union or Confederate armies, we can see that Witcher served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. His Civil War record confirms this. In 1862, Taliferro Witcher served as a private in the 1st Regiment, Georgia Cavalry in Company C.[1] Unfortunately, the 1870 census for Witcher has yet to be found. Perhaps he moved during the census or maybe his name is misspelled, or someone else answered very incorrectly for him. Regardless, he appears in the 1880 census. He is listed twice: once in South Park, Colorado and once in Fremont County, Colorado. He and his wife, Belle Witcher (nee Hardin), are listed as living with his mother-in-law in Fremont County, where he is a farmer. In the other, he is listed with his wife in South Park as a stock raiser. Based on this, the couple may have moved during the census or lived part time with his mother-in-law.

Witcher does not appear in a national census again until 1900, but then neither does anyone else![2] In 1900, Witcher is still listed as raising stock in Cotopaxi, but now divorced with his two sons, Otis and Lee, living and working with him as cowboys. He stayed there until his death in 1921 and both the 1910 and 1920 census confirm this. 1920 was the last census he appeared in as he passed away in November 1921, just shy of 79 years of age. By using the census along with other documents, a picture of who Taliaferro Witcher was develops just from the questions asked of him. 

Are you searching for information on an ancestor from Fremont County? Stop by the museum Wednesday – Saturday from 10:00 – 4:00 PM to see if our files may have some answers!      

[1] The National Park Service has a searchable “Civil War Soldiers and Sailors” database that can be accessed at https://www.nps.gov/civilwar/soldiers-and-sailors-database.htm.  

[2] The missing 1890 census will be covered in the next blog.                  

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *