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The Census Goes to War

By Daniel Hubbard | April 10, 2011

As the anniversary of the start of the American Civil War draws near, I thought I might write a post or two about the traces that war left in our documents.

Why exactly the war was fought is, like many historical questions, more complex than people generally assume. Yet it is hard to escape the role of slavery as the root.

Kansas Bleeding

Violence broke out in Kansas years before the Civil War began. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 undid the Missouri Compromise of 1820 by allowing the possibility of slavery in territories north of the compromise line. Each territory’s voters were to decide the question. The result was several years of murder and mayhem that helped to bring on war.

In 1856 a census was taken of parts of Douglas, Franklin and Johnson Counties in Kansas. Only men were listed and there are only two bits of information recorded. The first is the man’s name. The second is whether he was proslavery, antislavery or undecided.

Slave Schedules

One prewar resource that probably is often ignored by people who are not descended from slaves is the slave schedules.

Separate slave schedules were produced only in 1850 and 1860. Before that slaves were enumerated, though not named, in the population schedules. Unfortunately for African-American researchers, not much changed in 1850. Slave schedules list the masters and then give the age, gender and race (black or mulatto) of each slave but almost never a name. The few slaves that are given names in the census were extremely old with reported ages of 100 or more. Even then, the first-name-only method of reporting them gave no hint as to their origins. Family names were for free people only. Family structures were not preserved because the enumeration of an owner’s slaves usually starts with the oldest and works its way to younger and younger slaves.

It was important to enumerate slaves for the purpose of understanding the economy, just as other schedules provide agricultural and manufacturing data. The infamous three-fifths clause also meant that for every five slaves, three people were added to the population for the purpose of apportioning legislators. Counting them was important. Notations were made for slaves who became fugitives or who had been freed in the year before the official enumeration date.

The slave schedules give a glimpse into that world where it was possible for a man to not even own himself. You can see just how much wealth was held as human beings. Where slavery was legal a large number in the column for personal property in the population schedule generally means that the list of corresponding entries in the slave schedule will be long.

Jefferson Davis was not the largest slave owner but his entry was continued over several pages.

The schedules can hold some surprises too. Not all schedules came from the so-called slave states. There are 1850 schedules for New Jersey and I’ve read references to eighteen “apprentices for life” still held in New Jersey at the start of the war. Utah also produced slave schedules. In 1850 all the slaves listed in Utah were listed as “Going to California.” California forbid slavery and at least some of the slaves brought there from Utah sued for their freedom. None of these slaves are known to have returned to Utah with their masters. Two other things make this slave schedule particularly interesting. First, these slaves were not all of African descent. Of the twenty-six slaves listed in Utah, seven are listed as “yellow.” Also, nearly all these slaves are listed by name.

So, the slave schedules aren’t something just for people researching slaves.  The names they contain are nearly all the names of white men and women. The listings in the schedules reflect the economies, activities and perhaps attitudes of owners.  Those two schedules let us see something of a world that 150 ago this month was about to begin its cataclysmic end.

Dred Scott

As far as I know, you won’t find Dred Scott by name on any census roll. You can find him as one of the 12 slaves entered in the line for Peter Blow of Southampton County, Virginia in 1810. The Supreme Court ruled in 1857 that not only was he not free by virtue of having been brought to free territory (Illinois and what is now Minnesota) by his then master, John Emerson. The court also ruled that neither he nor any other non-white had any rights of citizenship, including the right to be heard in federal court and that no slave or descendant of slaves had any right to the constitution’s protections granted to non-citizens.

Dred Scott was freed soon after the court’s decision, though only following a complex series of occurrences that involved his widowed owner’s marriage to an abolitionist. He lived as a free man for only seventeen months. He died of tuberculosis in 1858. Nevertheless, his widow Harriet, who had also lived in the north as a slave, and their daughter Elizabeth were recorded as free people in St. Louis in 1860.

(This is the first part of a three part series. You can find the two later parts at Seven Score and Ten and Reconstructing the Post-War World.)

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