U.S. Census in the 1800’s

March 31, 2010

By Bob Cote

2010 marks another year of census taking in the United States; in fact, this census, taken every 10 years, will be the 23rd census since 1790.

Reading an article by David A. Norris in ‘True West’ magazine, I discovered that census takers in 1840 were paid two cents per name that they added to the population rolls, writing down each person’s name, age, gender, birthplace, occupation, and parent’s name. Obviously, in the unsettled and oft times unlawful west, a census taker’s life in Southern Arizona was a lonely and dangerous occupation, long hours and long rides between isolated settlements.

The1860 census in Arizona filed by Marshall D. J. Miller mentioned that fewer people existed at the time of filing than at the time of recording the information. His notes stated “Mr. Ward since killed by Indians”, John Power “assassinated by employees”, and another man “probably dead from wounds received by hostile Indians soon after I left his farm”. Miller’s census also recorded another individual’s $1,100 net worth of personal property, including “two Yuma Indian scalps with long plaited braids” valued at $100 each.

The 1880 census from Tombstone, future site of the gunfight at the O. K. Corral, noted Virgil Earp’s household, including his brother Wyatt S. (age 32); both were listed as “farmer’. At the same time the Clantons lived in Charlestown, Arizona, and Billy’s occupation was listed as “keeping dairy”. Billy’s brother Ike turned up in Yavapai County, Arizona Territory, as a “farmer”. Frank and Thomas McLaury, who both died at the gunfight, were noted as “stock raiser’. Bat Masterson was recorded in Dodge City, Kansas, as a “laborer”.

Defining occupations was always a subjective exercise. Cowboys were often recorded as “herding cattle”, “stock raiser”, or “laborer”, while town prostitutes were frequently listed as “Ogles fools”, “Diddles”, “Squirms in a deck”, or “Does horizontal work”. Comparing yearly census figures is fascinating as well:

Arizona City     1870                                1880 2000
Globe                                704   7,486
Phoenix               1,708         1,321,045
Prescott              668                 1,836               33,938
Tombstone                                 973 1,504
Tucson           3,224               7,007           486,699
Yuma                1,200              77,515

Today, many historical researchers peruse census records to trace the journeys of individuals as they made their way across the United States. The data collected by today’s census takers will not be of public record until 2082, for all personal census information remains closed for 72 years.

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