The census is the backbone of American research. It is one of the first sources that new genealogists learn to use, and one of the most useful overall. Perhaps because of this ease of use and accessibility, sometimes researchers can have a tendency to overlook less obvious notations, or to speed through the record a little too quickly.
Do you make a habit of reading all of the document, or do you simply note those “vital statistics” – name, age, parents, spouse, children – and move on? This page of the Dover, Athens County, Ohio census for 1850 is a prime example of why reading all the way across each line is important.
Do you see what would normally be so easy to miss? (You can click the image to enlarge it.) Sitha James, age six, born in Pennsylvania, deaf and dumb. Joel James, age 35, no occupation, born in Pennsylvania, “idiot.”
As genealogists and historians, we know that the U.S. Census regularly changed and continues to change what type of questions it asks. For a while the government worried about people who were considered incompetents: the deaf, dumb, criminal, and poor. Then they worried about aliens versus naturalized citizens versus native-born citizens. Then they tracked who had a radio. If you remember the hullaballoo from the 2010 census, the burning question was “Are you Hispanic?” Each time the census shifts its focus we learn what America both fears and values: is our population healthy and strong and successful? How does the number of immigrants affect our communities? Are we keeping up with the other nations of the world when it comes to wealth and technology?
Seeing those labels applied so matter-of-factly to Sitha and Joel makes us a little uncomfortable today – particularly when you remember that those labels were being applied to family members; maybe even your family members. But it turns out that having someone so labelled can be a boon to those tracing that family’s past. If you notice those items in the far right columns.
For instance, Sitha was listed twice in the 1860 U.S. Census: once with her family and once on a page listing young men and women, age 13 to 30, who had no relation to each other. Once again, reading all of the columns was important for explaining why Sitha was listed in two places at once.
In the first version of the census in column 12 there is a mark indicating that Sitha attended school within the year. Only about half of her siblings were so marked. And the fact that Sitha, the oldest girl, attended school rather than assisting with the numerous children in the family is odd.
In the second version of the 1860 census, which lists 15-year-old Sitha James with dozens of other young men and women living in a county more than 70 miles from her family, the very first column, another easily overlooked column, reports that the 40 young people enumerated on that page were all residents of the Ohio Deaf and Dumb Asylum in Columbus.
It appears that Sitha attended the institute for at least one year, and probably for all five years of the training they offered. Students were taught basic academic subjects such as reading and math, as well as vocational skills at the Deaf and Dumb Asylum. By 1870 she had returned to her parents’ home.
This information leads us to a census schedule that most people do not know exists. In part this lack of awareness is because this census applies to a very small portion of the U.S. population during a very specific period of years: the married deaf between 1888 and 1895. This census questionnaire, created at the instigation of the Volta Bureau, founded by Alexander Graham Bell as a center of information for deaf Americans, was designed to provide raw data about the marriages of deaf people in this country. Of primary interest was the offspring of the deaf (whether they were more or less likely to be deaf than were children of non-deaf parents) and the level of happiness of the partners in a marriage where one or both was deaf.
This census schedule is important to the research involving Sitha James because she married Stephen Miles Spencer, who was also deaf, on 25 August 1872. We know this because Sitha was a respondent for the “U.S. Special Census on Deaf Family Marriages and Hearing Relatives, 1888-1895.” (This census can be searched online at Ancestry.com.) The census report was four pages long and is a veritable gold mine for genealogical research. Each report contained the names of the husband and wife, the date and place of their marriage, and the name of the officiant at the wedding. The names of their children were listed with their respective dates of birth and death, if appropriate, as well as whether any of them were deaf. According to this report, Sitha and Stephen had no children.
The names of the parents of the husband and wife were reported, and the names of all of the siblings of the married couple were included. Details of birth dates, death dates and more were requested, and it is from this report that we discover that Sitha and Stephen’s marriage lasted only four years before Stephen succumbed to consumption (tuberculosis) on 30 August 1876 at the age of 32.
Sitha also noted that one of her younger brothers, Lewis Lee James, became deaf at the age of six months due to “inflammation of the brain.” She reported that her own deafness was caused by illness in infancy, while Stephen had become deaf at the age of five years due as well to “inflammation of the brain.” Both Sitha and Stephen attended the Ohio Deaf and Dumb Asylum, he for five years and she for seven years. It is likely that this is where the couple met.
While the level of detail in the various reports of the U.S. Special Census on Deaf Family Marriages and Hearing Relatives, 1888-1895 is not consistent, the reports do offer an insight into the personal lives of our ancestors that is not normally available in government records and documents. Of course not every family will be able to take advantage of this special census, but you might find other important hints and bits of family history by reading all the way across the page on those census reports, or by looking at other special censuses. There are State Census records that were taken between Federal Censuses in some states, U.S. Indian Census Rolls, IRS Tax Assessment Lists, Mortality Schedules (these were taken the same year as the Federal Census but asked about persons who had died in the 12 months prior to the regular enumeration), and many more. It is well worth the effort to see what is available for the area and time period where your ancestors lived, and look at the information provided thereon!
(For those of you who were wondering about Joel: he died in 1855 and was buried in Athens County, Ohio where his father, James James, and his brother, Matson James, are also buried.)
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Have you found your ancestor in a special census? Or have you discovered something unusual about a family member by reading one of those distant columns? Share your experience in the comments!