I’ve been skimming a lot of 1860 census pages lately, and one thing I’ve noticed is that despite the detailed instructions, the census marshals still have to exercise judgment in a number of areas. Since I’m focusing on African-Americans, I’ve noticed that some marshals didn’t identify any mixed-race people (known as “mulattoes” to the Census). Some of them also classified people as “Indian” (meaning Native American) even though that isn’t one of the three accepted “color” designations (which were Black, Mulatto, and White). In one case, the marshal identified several members of a family as “Ind” (for Indian) but did not count them as “colored” in the tally at the bottom of the sheet (making him different from others who did consider Indians colored).
And then there’s this example of opinion about the race of a family in Willington:
That additional text along the side reads “halfbreed Indians.” The marshal was very confused about what to put down because the reality of this family, with an Indian father and a white mother, wasn’t fitting into the supposedly nice, tidy categories of race. What’s a poor census-taker to do? Punt, apparently, and let somebody else make the final decision.
Opinion creeps in more directly with respect to things like “Occupation,” which the instructions didn’t even try to list out in detail – it was up to the marshal to inquire and figure out what the person’s principal occupation was. And interaction with people apparently sometimes led to results like this description of a guy in Essex:
Yes, Mr. Dickinson’s occupation was listed as “Loafer.” It’s not the only one I’ve seen, either. And yet, other non-working men get to be called “Gentleman.” That’s what we call a class distinction – if you’re rich and don’t work, you’re a gentleman (or lady). Of course it’s also a somewhat practical distinction, since a rich enough man doesn’t have to work – just collect rents, or rake in profits from the businesses he’s invested in.
I’m not sure I want to know how a different census-taker in a different town reached a decision to identify one woman’s occupation as “Whore.” (This same guy kept listing other women’s occupations as “Public Servant,” which none of the others I’ve looked at have used – it makes me wonder if he meant … something else.)
And then there’s odd items like this one from East Hartford:
A bit of quick web-searching yielded the information that “the flower of Dumblane” is in fact a reference to this poem by Robert Tannahill. Apparently the child made quite an impression on the marshal, or maybe he’d just been reading Longfellow’s anthology.
Overall, these things remind me that when we use these documents, to a great extent we’re relying on the judgment of human beings – not all of whose judgment is completely reliable, whether for personal or cultural reasons.