Northeastern North Carolina Family History – a new year, a new census

By: Irene Hampton

Someone asked me recently if I could locate a place name in a Currituck will from the 1820’s. I didn’t hold out any high hopes but looked for Patridge Inlet on a few online map collections from the late 1700’s and early 1800’s without success. I did find a Jesse Patridge listed in the census for both 1800 and 1810 in Currituck with a will recorded shortly after that. Jesse wasn’t the object of the search but another will recorded land being near which was then known as Patridge’s Inlet. Around that same time I had stopped to look through some microfilm at the Currituck library in Barco and checked on a map book while I was there, too. I also perused the “Map Guide to the U. S. Federal Censuses, 1790-1920” by William Thorndale and William Dollarhide. I’m embarrassed to admit that if I have ever known that Currituck extended all the way to Hatteras prior to 1830, I had forgotten that… In 1830 that area was added to Hyde County and then annexed again when Dare County was created in 1870.

“The Map Guide to the U. S. Federal Censuses, 1790-1920” is an excellent resource to help understand how counties were created and how ancestors may have never moved and yet appear in numerous county records. As my search for Patridge Inlet was prior to 1830 it could literally have extended from modern Currituck all the way to Hatteras! My one thought was searching the families in the 1800 and 1810 censuses that lived around Jesse Patridge might narrow down his location but the inlet might not have been nearby. I’ve let that search go for the time being.

I have written about census research before but as 2020 means a new census is required to be taken it seems worth a review. Chapter 5 of “The Source, A Guidebook of American Genealogy” edited by Szucs & Luebking is about research in census records. Article I, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution called for an enumeration of the citizens within three years of the first meeting of Congress and then to be held every ten years. Federal marshals were in charge of taking the census until 1850 when the first census office was opened in Washington, D.C. It was the 1850 census that for the first time asked for the names of everyone in the household instead of the ages and numbers of those in a residence.

From the beginning some people have not trusted the government’s motive for the census and have refused to answer questions or lied to enumerators. Rural areas posed a particular problem when a census taker travelled to a location only to find no one there. Some may have guessed or used personal knowledge. In researching rural census records I will often see a list of initials for first names instead of the name spelled out. My guess is the census taker knew who he was recording and didn’t feel the need to write out the names. “Every page was to include the enumerator’s signature, the name of the civil division, county, and state and, after 1870, the local post office.” Three sets of returns were required which promoted errors in additional copies. In 1880 extra sets were no longer required and originals were sent the Census Office. When the Commerce Department had a fire in 1921, most of the 1890 census was destroyed and sadly no other copies were recorded elsewhere. Census takers were instructed to number each dwelling consecutively as they visited them so there is usually no correlation between the first number listed and the actual address.

Questions to be asked varied with each census. Originally they were concerned with just the number of inhabitants. In 1820 a questions were added about whether or not the person was a citizen and the type of industry they were involved in. The 1830 census was the first to provide a uniform printed form to record the census on. 1840 added a question for the ages of Revolutionary War pensioners and those who could read and write. The 1850 “enumeration was to list every person in the United States except Indians living on government reservations or living on unsettled tracts of land.” 1860 asked what the value of personal estate was and if the person had been married within the year. Birthplaces were to be specific as to state, territory or country. The 1870 census also asked birthplace of an individual’s parents, something that can be very helpful in research BUT I have found that different census years might give different places for parental birthplaces.

The 1880 census FINALLY asked for relationship for all those in the household to the head of the household. Many suppositions have been made over the years from earlier censuses. Records of only 6,160 individuals for the 1890 census survived. This is where a state census taken midway between the federal census can be a lifeline. Unfortunately North Carolina didn’t require one so it is not a help in this state. For other states check l’ll end with the 1900 census which is my favorite as well as most researchers as it is the ONLY census asking for month and year of birth of every individual.

Release of census information is governed by the federal 72 year privacy requirement. 1950 info will be released in 2022. Happy census year!