I’m a statistician at heart. That’s why I can get lost for hours at the University of Virginia’s Historical Census Browser, a site with more federal census statistical data than you can shake a stick at.
Genealogists traditionally use the federal census as a tool for tracking family. But in a broader sense, the census offers a statistical analysis of the communities where our ancestors lived and how they made their living. It tracks the westward expansion and then the massing into the cities. It notes the decline of the small farm and the rise of industry. The census takes a community’s pulse, then uses those statistics to calculate the health of the population and economy.
If you’re willing to roll up your sleeves and plow through numbers, you’ll be amazed at the wealth of information available on this site. For example, in 1860 Putnam County, Missouri, the population stood at 9,207—12 of whom owned the county’s 31 slaves. That year, Americans owned 3,950,528 slaves, and 114,931 of them lived in Missouri—which ranked 11th in slaveholding. Putnam’s meager 31 speaks volumes.
In comparison, Jackson County, located 200 miles down the road, had a population of 22,913, more than twice that of Putnam. However, Jackson had 898 slaveholders and 3,944 slaves. This means that 17 percent of Jackson’s population was enslaved, compared to less than 1/2 percent in Putnam.
Do these numbers reflect a telling migration pattern (Putnam’s families came from Ohio and Indiana; Jackson’s from North Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia) or a larger ideological struggle? The slave-holding difference in these two northern Missouri counties is staggering and yet it reflects the very conflict that made Missouri one of the most hotly contested battlegrounds of the border states. When war did break out the following spring, 66 of the 157 engagements and battles listed in the 1861 Army Register were in Missouri.
The historical census data for these counties is filled with details that prompt further research. How did the men of these two counties respond once war came? Putnam’s young and not-so-young poured into the Union Army, even though they hadn’t voted for Lincoln. The families of Jackson were torn apart when some sons fought to preserve the nation and others fought for its dissolution. The pro-Confederate sympathies in Jackson were so strong, in fact, that in 1863, most of the Union families were forced by official order to vacate the county.
Take some time to dig down through the Census Browser. It’s interactive, so you can generate a seemingly endless combination of statistics. And, if you’re like me, you’ll begin to see clues that are as valuable as the genealogical ones you find in the federal census.