Monday, October 24, 2011

Sutton in the Census

From the U. S. Constitution, Article I, Section 2: “The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct.” That is the only specific tasking the founders gave us and it is time for the Twenty-Third Census of the United States.

The purpose of the census is to provide population statistics to adjust the boundaries of Congressional districts but data collection has grown as has the usefulness of the information.

Sutton’s first appeared in the 1880 census having just missed the prior edition. Enumerator James E. Marsh found 1631 people in Sutton Township. Mr. Jacob Steinmetz counted noses in School Creek Township.

Each census has asked a different set of questions beginning with early years when little more than the name of the head of the household and the number of persons was asked. By the beginning of the twentieth century the census bureau was collecting a wealth of information including age, place of birth, immigration date, number of years married, parents’ birthplace, literacy, occupation, etc. Recent forms have shrunk. The 2010 form has only 10 questions asking for name, sex, age, date of birth, racial and home ownership information.

Analysts use census data to learn how the country has grown and developed but no group has benefited from this resource more than genealogists. Great-grandparents seem to come to life as you see their family listed in the census and imagine the interview with the local enumerator. There are surprises lurking in these records: children who died young and were not remembered, in-laws who lived in the house, servants, boarders and gaps – people who should be there but aren’t.

We can’t fully trust everything found in the census. My great-grandparent’s family appears on the first page of the 1880 School Creek census where we’re led to believe that Anna Johnson gave birth to twins in Sweden at the age of 14. Possible, but her achievement probably would have been part of our family folklore. Family records indicate Anna was born in 1841 and would have been 38 years old when she met with the census taker, not 28 as he recorded. Curiously, he also listed his own wife as being 28 years old that year with 18 and 13 year old daughters. He might have had trouble with arithmetic, or maybe he was married twice – the census provides clues, not always complete answers.

Mr. Steinmetz illustrated another point in his own entry. He tried to record his wife’s birthplace and that of her parents but he re-wrote it a couple of times making a mess of the page. It appears he wrote “Prussia” and he clearly wrote “Hesser Castle”, probably meaning the Prussian province of Hesse-Kassel. Again, clues, not always complete answers.

I learned two things about my great-grandmother in the 1900 census. It reports that she had seven children but only six were living. My grandfather must have had a brother or sister who likely died in Sweden before the family emigrated. Also, the enumerator recorded that Anna could read and write, but did not speak English. Quite a number of older people, especially women were getting along just fine in their native language according to the 1900 and 1910 census.

Did you notice that I skipped over the 1890 census? If you research census records, you will too. That census was lost in a fire. So our Sutton research begins in 1880, then skips twenty whole years to the 1900 records followed by 1910, 1920 and you are finished at 1930, for now. Census records are “closed” for 72 years as a privacy consideration. The 1940 census will become public in just a couple more years. I am anticipating that one as my father was the School Creek enumerator starting the task on April 2nd and finishing on April 17th. It will be in his handwriting – and a good hand it was. That was not always the case.

Just a few years ago census records were only available on microfilm at Mormon libraries at temples and in the largest stakes. Many of us spent hours and hours in darkened rooms at the library just west of Temple Square in Salt Lake City poring over film after film. Now, it is almost too easy. Census records are online and indexed. What used to take multiple sessions can be done in minutes. The genealogy web site is a robust and easily accessible repository. There is a modest subscription fee, but when compared to traveling to spend hours or days in a library, it’s a fair price.

This article appeared in the January, 2010 Sutton Life Magazine. Information about the magazine is available at or Mustang, Inc., 510 West Cedar, Sutton, NE 68979.

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