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My Research Adventures

Art in the US Census?

When performing research, I often use the United States Federal Census records. They are helpful in confirming the identities of individuals mentioned in the Powell letters, including their names, ages, where they live, who their relatives are, etc. Correctly identifying these individuals helps to complete the tales the Powells tell.

On the surface, the census records appear dry, and for the most part they are. Although when read in context, the data can tell fascinating tales. For example, it can be interesting to note which family members are living together, whether any non relatives are living in the house (and ponder why), who the neighbors are, etc.

The individual taking the census (referred to as an Assistant Marshal) was required to live in the district for which he was responsible, and therefore was familiar with those living in the area. He generally took a systematic route through the district, which meant that neighbors were often recorded on the same page. The Assistant Marshal’s job was tedious and likely monotonous. He was responsible for recording every resident in his district in a detailed manner on a lengthy form. However I found a fun example where an Assistant Marshal added creativity to the job in how he recorded the birthplace of each resident. See his artistic flair in the image above from page 21 of the 1860 Prince Edward County US Census.

The Assistant Marshal is noted at the top of the page as Theodorick B. McRobert. He lists himself on page 1 of his district, and it makes sense that he would start in his own neighborhood. His occupation is listed as a farmer. Therefore he is completing this census as a secondary occupation. He completes between 1 to 2 pages per day with occasional breaks on a Sunday or for an entire week (likely at a busy time on his farm). To complete 1 to 2 pages a day is reasonable considering the distance he was traveling, the difficulty of travel at that time, and the length of time it would take to make the inquiries for each resident to be listed on the form. And there was likley further conversation regarding the latest news, the weather, and updates on the family. His artistic flair begins on page 19 part way down the page as seen below where he records the birth place back and forth across the allotted box.

That pattern continues on pages 20, 21, and 22:

For contrast, a typical page from the US Census looks like the following image at page 18:

Perhaps Mr. McRobert was having a monotonous day and wanted to add levity or creativity to brighten the task at hand. Whatever his reason, his creativity caught my eye and broke the monotony of my own research. Very little of the life and experience of Mr. Theodorick B. McRobert may survive, but his creativity endures tucked away in the US Census.

As a post script, I noted that Mr. McRobert was also an Assistant Marshal for the 1850 census in Bath County, Virginia. I looked through every page he completed and did not find any similar patterns. I did not find him on future census records as an Assistant Marshal but did find him busy with a farm and a large family.


The images are from the United States Federal Census for Prince Edward County, Virginia in 1860.

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