Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Census Enumerators

The following is a reprint of a blog posting made to the Sherburne History Center blog on March 19, 2012.

While surfing through microfilm pages of the Sherburne County Times newspapers, I encountered two interesting articles, published in two consecutive weeks. The first reported:

“Miss Emily J. Mosford has been appointed census enumerator for this district which comprises the towns of Clear Lake and Haven, also the village of Clear Lake.
The work of taking the census of the country will begin on the 15th of April. It is a government census and the aim of the department is to make it as thorough and complete as possible. Don’t hesitate to answer the questions the enumerator ask you; they are for statistical use only, and, more over the federal government require that you answer them, severe penalties being imposed upon all who refuse to do so. So, make it pleasant as you can for the enumerator and thereby give your locality a good showing.”

This article appeared on 31 March 1910. In the next issue, 7 April 1910, the full list of enumerators for the county appeared:

“Following are the enumerators for this county:
Baldwin and Blue Hill, H B Pratt
Becker town and village, Edwin Winterborne
Big Lake town and village, John Nordin
Clear Lake town and village and Haven exclusive
of E. St. Cloud, Emil J Mosford
Elk River town, Elk River village, Burns F. Plummer
Livonia and Orrock, Melvin C. Enger
Palmer and Santiago, S T Packard”

This is all interesting, I don’t know that I have ever seen a local newspaper publish the names of the enumerators as part of the campaign to promote participation in the census.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Death By Accident

In her recent book Hey, America, Your Roots Are Showing, Megan Smolenyak-Smolenyak writes about a young African-American man in Texas who was killed during the Civil Rights movement. He was shot in the head three times and his death was determined to be accidental.

Ms. Smolenyak writes of being shocked at these conclusions. “How could firing several rounds into a local hangout be accidental?” she asks.

All of this reminds me of a story during my graduate studies in Georgia. I was attending class with a fellow student, a justice of the Georgia courts. At the time there were multiple news reports about a young man who had been shot several times and his death ruled a suicide. At the beginning of class one evening I wondered, aloud, how could anyone be shot several times and still be ruled a suicide. The justice, my colleague, simply commented, “You obviously haven’t lived in the South very long.”

In addition to racism, these stories indicate significant regionalism. Police in the South are, to this day, more inclined to draw a mental line between two points and come up with the most straight forward conclusion. If someone is shot and there are no witnesses, it must be suicide. Any incongruities that might hinder this conclusion are best ignored. And life goes on.

I guess I have lived in the South long enough because a man shot through a window, several times, ruled an accident in really not shocking, nor surprising.

I suppose I am way too cynical.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

An Idle Thought

Some of you may have noticed that I am writing a weekly column for the Sherburne County Citizen and the West Sherburne Tribune. The column doesn’t always appear, but that is the chance you take when writing for a newspaper. The point of all of this is that because I am writing more, it is becoming a bit more difficult to write exclusively for this blog. I will try to put together some interesting writing, but it may be a bit less often.

Anyway, while surfing the columns of historic newspapers in Sherburne County I came across an interesting, brief comment that says a great deal about life and family duties in Sherburne County around 1900. Published in the Sherburne County Times, 21 April 1898, it reads: “Mrs. J. H. Sherpardson’s nurse has gone to the city, and J. H. has to do the household work now.”

This is interesting that the fact the newspaper takes note of J.H Shepardson having to “do the household work” implies he hasn’t done it for some time. The poor man has to suddenly take care of himself while his wife recovers from some unknown illness.

Am I reading too much “between the lines” of this report? I don’t think so.

Finally, sympathy for J. H. Shepardson is 114 years too late, but I think we should all express some (sarcastic) pity for this man. And recognize the hard work of his wife and all women of that time.

This is all just idle thinking while I have a moment.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Yet Another Challenge for Family History

Recently working with a family historian, we opened up the discussion of birth dates and using them to identify specific ancestors. I tried to make the point that in the middle 1800s the precise birth date was not a significant detail in one’s life. A survey I had conducted seemed to bear this out. I had indexed a collection of records from a Civil War veterans’ hospital and found that many veterans listed their birth date as Christmas Day or New Year’s Day. So many were born on these two holidays I suspect they simply chose a date out of their brain because they didn’t know precisely when they were born.

Now, I am reading a book review that seems to bear this out. In the on-line version of the New York Times, Linda Shapiro reviewed the book In Our Prime. It is a historic study of “middle age.” Written by Patricia Cohen, it makes the point that age was not all that important before 1900. To quote the review, that is quoting the book: before 1900 “age was not an essential ingredient of one’s identity.” This is high brow language to say that no one cared how old you were. No one was terribly concerned about their birth date.

According to the review, only with mass industrialization did age become a factor in life. With the rise of large cities, segmenting the population became important and age then became a consideration of life.

This is an interesting concept for genealogists and family historians. What this all means is that before 1900, the ages and birth dates of our ancestors all become suspect. Whenever we read cemetery markers that list date of death and then age, breaking it down to year, month and number of days all become potentially incorrect. This is yet another detail we must closely explore in our research.

Another popular piece of mass culture reinforces this idea. In the movie Crocodile Dundee, the lead character is talking about his birth date. I apologize that I get the quote wrong but it went something like: “I asked my uncle, once, when I was born? He told me the summertime.”

We may have to look very closely at our pre-1900 research and challenge birth dates with even greater scrutiny.