Thursday, March 18, 2010

Census: Independence Rock. A Genealogy Perspective

In Niobrara County, Wyoming is Independence Rock. It is a crucial point along the Oregon Trail, "The Register of the Desert." Carved into the feldspar are thousands upon thousands of names of pioneers. From 1824 on, people stopped and carved their names into this rock, hoping that the relatives that came after would learn that they'd made it this far. One story tells of a woman who writes her name in 1852, after finding her husband's signature, left in 1849. The rock was a way to make yourself and your journey real. It was a way to celebrate how far you've come, and to send a message, full of optimism, to the people that would follow. The census is no different, and no less important.

It is easy to get caught up in the 'NOW' of the census - to worry about the immediate ramifications - redistricting, school funding, etc. But the census is much broader and more far-reaching. Genealogists are big census fans. The census is often the only thread pulling a story together, connecting a family, or revealing insights that have been lost in time.

Some of my family is listed in the 1860 Yamhill County Oregon Census.
You can see the story of the Oregon Trail here, too:
- the journey - Susan Gant, age 6, born "on the plains."
- the migration pattern - the Perkins family has a father born in New York, marries a mother born in Indiana, their first child is also born in Indiana, but the second is born in Iowa and the 3rd-5th are born in Oregon.
- the tragedy - John and Eliza Pennington are raising their two daughters (16 and 14), but also 8 Sportsman children, the littlest only age 1. Like Eliza, the 3 oldest Sportsman children were born in Missouri, so they may be her sibling's children.

This information is unique, it wouldn't be possible to derive most of it from bibles, tax rolls, or other data. Even the questions a particular census asks reflect the evolution of the country. In 1790, the enumeration differentiated between free whites and slaves, but only white men were grouped by age. In 1820, there was a separate free black distinction, and women's ages were tracked. In the 1930 census, people born in Mexico were separate from 'white' but they weren't in any previous census or in the 1940 census. Literacy, sanity, deafness, blindness, unemployment, age at first marriage have all been asked through the years. In the 1940 census, the next to be released, native or childhood language was asked.

The individual data for the census is held for 70 years, so that people can be protected from having their personal information released. This seems so quaint in the digital age, where so much information is known and revealed to the world. But there is a feeling of excitement around the release of each census. The last one released, the 1930, was the first to list my grandparents. The 1950 will be the first to list my parents.

The census is an Independence Rock. It says to future generations that we are here, we matter, we count. It says we have faith that, despite the complexities and challenges of our journey, in 2080, someone will be there. Someone who wants to know who we are.

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