Digging deeper with Census Records: Part 1

Regardless of your race, if your ancestors arrived in the US and settled in a rural region before the 1900s, census records can give you new leads in researching tangent branches of your family. Why’s that? Rural areas of the pre-industrialised US were distinct communities. In some instances, they were isolated from other areas and regions. People tended to marry others from within the same community or from neighbouring communities.

A community, usually composed of a network of relations through marriage or shared experience, was a vital support system. On the whole, people rarely left – not until the early decades of the 1900s when industrialisation and manufacturing meant jobs and pay. Whether the jobs and pay were better than those offered by rural areas is arguable. Like anything, it was probably a matter of perception. Work from dawn to dusk farming and risk being prey to the weather and being one drought away from financial ruin, or work long hours for low but secure pay.

I digress!

RECOGNISING COMMUNITIES IN GENEALOGY RESEARCH

19th Century rural communities gave individuals a sense of place and a source of identity. Life in a community was a shared experience which bound the people within it together in any number of ways. For post Civil War African-Americans in the South that shared experience was slavery. Not all southern African-Americans were slaves. There was a thriving population of free blacks in America from the very early Colonial times. However, they were in the minority. For those who were slaves and remained in the communities where they had been slaves, there were tight bonds of community which were established long before their emancipation. And these ties existed and were sustained in the decades immediately following the Civil War. And this can be seen quite clearly in the Census records (more on this later).

This process of a community bound through shared experience isn’t unique. The pioneering families of the Mid West were bound by the hardships and challenges they faced on the prairie. Immigrants to New York were bound by the harrowing experiences they faced in the early slums of that city. Fishing villages and towns all along the New England coastline shared a similar bonding experience based on the hardships and loss of deep sea fishing (and previously, whaling).

There are other glues besides collectively faced hardships which bind communities together: faith/religion, beliefs and ideals.

SCANNING CENSUS RECORDS FOR AN ENTIRE COUNTY

When I first began researching my family, I was just excited to actually find specific people in the official records. It seemed amazing that I could actually sit at my desk and see a name in a census record from 150 years ago. It never occurred to me to scan a whole town’s census returns to see if they had kin nearby. That idea wouldn’t come until later. It was just exciting to find the person I was seeking and their immediate family members.

The idea to scan a town or county’s full census returns didn’t occur to me until I reached a point where I had a large number of different family groups…and no idea about whether they were related to each other or not. When I started to scan the records for an entire county  – literally starting with the first record in the series and then scanning all the way through to the last record – I noticed two things:

    1. Family groups tended to live near to one another: brother lived near to brother, sons lived near their fathers and cousins lived near to cousins. If they married, their wife’s family also tended to live nearby…which brings me to observation #2
    2. Different family groups tended to live near the same family groups. For example, the Smith, Green, Blogg and Jones families tended to live near one another decade after decade after decade. If I wanted to hazard a guess about a wife’s maiden name, I could draw from a relatively short list of neighbouring families. These were groups bound not only by shared experiences but through marriage as well.

Looking back on this now, this seems pretty obvious. But it was a thunderbolt moment for me. In the search for individuals, I had completely overlooked the context of community and the simple yet powerful ties that bound people to one another and to a place.

So let’s start with a simple example:

EXAMPLE: GEORGE HENRY ROANE (1806-?)
Through correspondence with a newly found Roane family member, we worked out that George Henry Roane had been sold to a John D Warren in Varina, Henrico County, Virginia. George wasn’t a native of Varina, he had come from elsewhere in Virginia. The question was where. But I’ll put that question aside just for a moment.

So what did we know about George? We knew he had at least 5 siblings: Absalom, Mary, Braxton, Baylor and Charles. We also knew he had at least two children: Patrick Henry Roane and Anthony Roane. We also knew that he was mentioned in the Richard A Roane family bible as being part of the “Roane colored family”. So he was associated with Richard A Roane, owner of the Plain View Plantation, and his father, Charles Roane.

Take a look at the document below. It’s an 1870 Census return for Varina, Henrico, VA:

This return shows George and his sons Patrick and Anthony living pretty much next door to one another. There’s George Henry Roane at Line 23. His son Patrick Henry Roane (Line 24) is living with him. Patrick’s wife and children are also in residence. Anthony Roane (Line 33), George’s son and Patrick’s brother, lives two door down. Living in between these two households is the Price family. Wyatt and Rose Price are the parents of Susan Price, Patrick Henry Roane’s wife.

This is a classic example of a family group living within a community.

This particular census return is interesting for a few reasons:

    • George Henry Roane’s family are the only African-American Roanes living in Varina, Henrico, VA at this time. This means, in all likelihood, that subsequent generations of Varina-based Roanes are descendants of this branch of the family. If I come across a Varina-based Roane in the official records, and can’t immediately place them within the family tree, I know he or she shares kinship with this particular family group.
    • There are family names I would come to recognise as sharing kinship with these Varina Roanes through marriage: Wyatt, Price, Braxton and Baylor.

Subsequent census returns showed that George and his sons – and their descendants – chose to remain in Varina and Henrico County. After the end of slavery, George did not return to his native county and didn’t rejoin his siblings. It’s unclear if he restored the bonds with his siblings or if there was any communication between his family and the larger family group George was separated from when he and his sons were sold.

So where did George Henry Roane come from? More on that in the next post…

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4 thoughts on “Digging deeper with Census Records: Part 1

  1. Excellent posts…both Digging Deeper 1 and Digging Deeper 2. I’m looking forward to the next in the series and will recommend to others. Great job of research and an excellent teaching tool for others.

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