June 21, 2014

Random Thoughts on a Family's Life as told in the Census

Doing census work has always bothered me emotionally. Going through those records for a family is like wandering through their life.  They cannot see me and I often feel like a "Peeping Tom," intruding without being caught!

I might not have a photo of them, except in my mind's eye, but I can plainly see each individuals as they are born, marry, have children and progress through 40 or 50 years of hard scrabble existence.  Hardly anyone that lived through those devastating years of the Civil War, through the years of the War to End All Wars, the influenza epidemic that followed, the stock market crash or the Great Depression and World War II was immune to poverty or, to hard work if they could find it.  They were either on the brink of poverty or, knew a neighbor or someone closely related to them who was in poverty.

I look at each family I "meet" through those records and wonder at their suffering as their children are born, appear in one census record and never appear in another.  I sometimes tear up when I find their tiny grave sites with the lamb resting on their headstones!  I then imagine all the others who lie in unmarked graves.  I cannot imagine the sorrow mothers and fathers felt as year after year they took one of their babies to the burial ground!

I wonder how the father managed to get up before the sun morning after morning to feed what little livestock he had, milk the cow, hook up the mule or ox and spend the day bustin' sod with a $2 plow! Years before that, he likely grew old clearing the land of boulders and tree stumps before he could begin building that farm.  Perhaps the family was one of those who pioneered the west.  Imagine the perils to life riding in or walking alongside a Conestoga wagon for the four to six months it took them to roll westward to their destination.

Farming day after day, month after month, year after year until he eventually died of a stroke or heart attack! Sometimes the widow was left with very small children that required her to find another husband and provider rather quickly.  Sometimes though, she had one or two older sons to take over their father's work and keep the family going.  Sons often delayed their own life plans to take care of their mothers and younger siblings.

Sometimes I find widows in the census who had children years after their husbands had died.  Some of us - I'll bet - think first as them having been promiscuous.  But, I think of the brutal neighbor that might have raped her.  Rape isn't a modern criminal act!  The rapist would have little to fear.  After all, who was the woman going to tell and have believe her?  She had no vote, couldn't own property, had to fight for the administration of her husband's estate and perhaps also to fight for the right to keep her children.  And yet, the census tells us that she had "no occupation."  Ironic, huh!?

But then I find the family that survived, some with 10 or even more children.  The father farmed with the help of the older children.  The census record tells us the wife had "no occupation."  I'm certain she felt otherwise as she was never not cooking on a wood burning stove, harvesting and preserving vegetables for their winter meals and more often than not, pregnant.  She was the family doctor, the family nurse and many times, the doctor or nurse to the families up the hollow from her!

Sometimes a child would leave home, get an education, teach school or enter into some other occupation requiring them to leave home.  Daughters sometimes became school teachers when they themselves were barely educated.  But, they gave what they knew and likely are responsible for educating and inspiring the many friends and relatives they were asked to teach.

The 1940 census surprised me when I found how many family members had attended or had actually graduated from a university.  Many of them came from families who had succeeded at land acquisition and farming.  Perhaps the father had to sell some land to pay for the education.  Often I find some who quit and married after two or three years of high school,  Generally, if the husband had a four year degree the wife had at least one or two years of university training.  They could read and write better than their parents and knew more about what was going on in the world.  They bought and sold real estate or other assets and passed on some of their new wealth to their own children.  The ones that attended and actually graduated from a university had to move away from their hometown  to some large and industrialized city where they lived, loved and died!

The families were the larger part of the fabric that made this country great!  I believe they actually made the fabric.




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