DATA: The first United States census was taken in 1790 and then every ten years after that. The first six census records only listed the head of the household by name and the other family members by age category. But starting in 1850, each member of the household was listed by name since then. The population of the United States in 1850 was about twenty-three million. The 1850 Population Schedule for Davie County showed 5,613 free white persons. There were 82 free blacks and 2,170 slaves.
NARRATIVE: Burgess Gaither, age 31, married to Sarah, with daughter, Mary, 4 and son, William, 1, used his horse to transport himself throughout the entire county to count people and statistics in 1850. He arose early on Saturday, June 1, 1850, to begin his long and tedious trip. He carried five huge, blank books with him. The directions for taking these five census schedules had been read several times, so he felt at ease in interviewing people. The first family he visited was John and Lydia Van Eaton. In book one, he carefully wrote down their names and the names of their children in order of birth. He also listed their ages, gender, occupation, value of real estate, place of birth, whether married within the year, whether attended school within the year, whether adults could read and write, and whether any of them was deaf and dumb, blind, insane, idiotic, a pauper or a convict.
When in book two, he listed the slave owner’s name, and the slave’s age, gender, and whether black or mulatto, but not the slaves’ names. John Van Eaton had four, but they were all children.
Book three was filled in next. Burgess asked, “Has anyone in your family or one of your slaves died since June 1, 1849?” If so, the person’s name, age, gender, color, marriage, place of birth, month of death, occupation, cause of death, days ill, and doctor’s name. A dictionary is necessary sometimes to understand what archaic terms such as phthisic, dropsy, consumption, etc. mean.
Next, he opened book four and asked 46 questions to each household about their farm. He filled in the page with number of acres, value, number of horses, pigs, goats, pounds of butter, etc.
In book five, he listed any industries, such as sawmills, grain mills, distilleries, blacksmith shop, or tanneries. There were few of these since most were farmers. One company made vehicles for horses to pull. The inventory was 1 coach ($400), 12 rockaways ($200 each), 57 buggies ($100 each), and 3 wagons ($60 each). Eaton and Rich had a tobacco factory with 20,000 pounds of tobacco worth $2,000.
On August 16, 1850, Burgess finished his 2.5-month responsibility of getting a snapshot of statistics for the federal government. Genealogists and historians assume he did this just for them so that they could learn more about their kinfolk and the county, but it was actually done for the government’s use of learning more about citizens.
Time was, that a researcher had to look all the way through this hand-written data to discover the names and ages of his relatives, but computers have saved them much time by having indexes on Ancestry and FamilySearch Websites.
We live in an age of saving time and effort, but we need to remember the dedicated work of the men and women who have taken the census since 1790. A parting blessing that I heard once is “May you live long enough to find yourself on a census.” The 1940 census is the most current one for public viewing. There is a waiting period of 72 years from the time the census is taken until it is made public.