Taking Back What Was Once Lost

The 1850/1860 Slave Census Debate

Hopefully, you are all familiar with the Afrigeneas website for African Ancestored research. I want to bring your attention to a terrific article that resides there, albeit somewhat hidden.

From their homepage, if you click on the link that says Records, and then click Library Records, you will find a collection of articles and other submitted materials by Afrigeneas readers. All of the articles are good & should be explored, but my favorites by far are the ones by author David Paterson.

The title of this post refers to an article of his called “The 1850 and 1860 Census, Schedule 2, Slave Inhabitants” that I first read many years ago. It opened my eyes in a whole new way to the 1850 and 1860 documents because it discusses at length the political wrangling in Congress over what information these schedules should contain. To think that this is the reason why we see no names there today is just mindboggling.

I am going to quote liberally a section of his article (with permission), but only because I hope it whets your appetite to read the entire article, as well as his others. This excerpt is from a Congressional debate over two proposed census forms to use, one that did record slave names and one that did not. It is very long but I think once you start reading you won’t be able to stop. ( I’ve only made very minor omissions because of length):

[quoted section begins]

On 9 April 1850, Senator John Davis of Massachusetts opened the Senate debate over which of version of the population forms would be used. ..

Senator Arthur P. Butler of South Carolina immediately rose with an amendment, saying: “I move to amend, so that instead of requiring the names of the slaves to be taken, the number only shall be required . . . and I now move to strike out the word ‘names’ and insert the word ‘number.’”

Davis: “I believe that the only thing which induced the use of the word ‘names’ in both of the tables [free and slave], was the supposition that a greater degree of accuracy would be thereby ascertained, and any fraud be the more readily detected. However, if gentlemen have any choice on the subject, I am not disposed to object.”

Butler: “The census heretofore taken has only required the numbers of the slaves, and I see no useful information the obtaining of the names can afford. On a plantation where there are one, two, or three hundred slaves, there are perhaps several of the same name, and who are known simply by some familiar designation on the plantation. It can afford no useful information, and will make a great deal of labor.”

[Davis] asked Butler: “If we are only to get the aggregate number of slaves, how are we to ascertain the owners?”

Butler: “By providing that the number of slaves owned by him shall be put opposite to the name of each owner.”

David: “Then we shall lose the benefit of the classification of ages.”

Butler: “Not at all. The age and sex will remain—everything but the name.”

At this point, Senator Joseph R. Underwood of Kentucky rose to defend inclusion of the names…: “If you leave the age and sex of each slave, it will be perceived at once that the master and the census-taker must have his attention directed to each individual slave. Then, as each individual slave upon the plantation must constitute the subject of particular reference at the time, in order to ascertain the age and the sex, and other inquiries which the census table proposes to enumerate, it does seem to me that he must necessarily get the name.”

Senator George E. Badger of North Carolina interjected a mockery of slaves’ names: “What do you want of such names as Big Cuff or Little Cuff?”

Butler: “Or of Little Jonah and Big Jonah?”

Some senators laughed.

Underwood: “I have no particular anxiety to see these classical names that have been suggested, and whether it be Cicero or Cuff, it makes no difference to me. As it is necessary that attention must be directed to each individual, it occurred to me that the census taker could certainly make more progress by putting down the name, instead of being obliged to make a series of calculations. Then all that will be necessary will be, to put down the name, and to carry out the age and sex opposite to it; otherwise, the census taker will have, in the course of his examination, to take a child of one age and put him down, and make a memorandum, and then go on and take another child of another age, and put him down, and so on; and before he can make all the inquiries in regard to each on the plantation, he will have a whole sheet of paper covered with calculations and figures. I do believe the work can be done quicker and faster by making an entry of the names, and passing from one to the other, and thus save all of this calculation. This same process has been adopted in reference to the white population. The old system of proceeding was, to put down the population according to a classification of ages, as between five and ten; and ten and fifteen; and fifteen and twenty; and so on. The effect of that arrangement was, to require the census taker and the head of the family, in the calculation to which I have alluded, to ascertain the particular ages, and what class the particular individual should be enumerated under; and we thought . . . that it would really take more time and labor to make this classification . . . than it would merely to put down the names and ages—the simplest of all processes. I believe, therefore, that instead of imposing additional labor, it would save time and labor.”

Senator Robert M. T. Hunter of Virginia: “Is it proposed to publish the names?”

Underwood: “Not at all; there is a total mistake on that subject. The names of the white population are not proposed to be published, nor are the names of the blacks.” Only the statistical tables produced by counting the names, ages, et cetera, were to be published.

Senator David L. Yulee of Florida could not see the use of recording any names: “I wish to ask the Senator what public advantage there can be in having on the files of the department the names of all the inhabitants of the United States, white or black? What advantage can there be to know that there is a John Smith in New York, another in Kentucky, and another in Georgia? It has never been done before, and will certainly be a work of great labor and expense.”

Senator Underwood patiently repeated his explanation…: “I imagined myself going about with the census taker,” said Underwood, “and how he would talk with the head of a family, and how he would make his memorandums as he went along, and the conclusion was irresistible that he would do the business faster by merely putting down the name and age”.

Senator Jeremiah Clemens of Alabama objected: “There is not a man in the South owning a hundred negroes who knows scarcely any more of the names of the slave children than I do. He would be obliged to send the census taker to the negro quarters himself, to ascertain the information.”

Underwood shot back: “If the slave owner cannot give the name of the children, how is he to give the age?”

Clemens: “He knows how many children there are, and can tell about the time they were born. Say that he has a negro woman of the name of Eliza with four children—he can state about the time each was born. As to their names, he would not know anything about that until the children had reached the age of twelve or fourteen.”

Underwood: “I cannot speak for the large negro owners in the South, but I can of that description of people and the negroes in my own State. And I venture to say that there is no plantation in my quarter, although the slaves are nothing like as numerous as they are in the South, but what the owner can tell you the name of every person on the plantation, and that without hesitation. We generally keep a record of their names and ages. And I should suppose that while the farmers of the South were recording, according to the suggestion of the Senator from Alabama, the ages of their slave children, they could put down something for their names also.”

Clemens: “I did not say that they had a record of their ages, but merely that they could tell very nearly what they were.”

Underwood: “Well, if there was any record of their ages I should suppose it would be connected with their names. If no record is kept of the age, then it has to be guessed at, and the name may as well be guessed at also, for it is wholly immaterial. But you must describe the children in some way, or take and put them down as child number one, child number two, and give the age of each. It will do just as well to designate them by numbers as by name, provided it secures the basis of the calculation which it is necessary to make afterwards. An oath that it is the correct name of the child is not required, and if the age of a child can be given, so can a name, and if all are given the same name it makes no difference. . . .  The idea suggested, that the farmer will not know the names of his slaves makes no sort of difference. He can know as much about the names as the age; and all we can expect is, to come as nearly to what is precisely correct as possible, and that by the safest and most correct means. I have nothing more, I believe, to say on this particular subject.”

Butler: “I cannot see the use of taking the names; in fact, I am surprised that the idea is even entertained. My friend from Kentucky generally has my vote; but upon this matter we see so differently that I am compelled to be at issue with him.”

Senator Butler’s amendment, to replace slaves’ names with numbers, was then put to a vote and passed.

[end of quote]

I was struck when I read this by the racist and ridiculous thoughts about blacks evident in many of the senators comments. There is a point in the article where a senator actually says that the average slave wouldn’t know how many children she had! I think of this debate every single time I look at those slave schedules.

I do hope you will visit the site and read David’s article in its entirety. It gives much more detail and background and more information than I excerpted above and it will enrich your genealogy research in this area greatly.

David also has several other excellent articles posted on Afrigeneas, but two I believe are absolute must-reads: “Georgia’s Slave Population in Legal Records” and “Case Study on Determining Maternity by Correlating Records of Alpheus Beall’s Slaves”.

4 Comments

  1. February 12, 2010    

    Thanks for this enlightening post. I read every word of it, and will seek out the other articles, also. I’ve been on Afrigeneas for several years, but had never seen this.

    Renate

  2. February 13, 2010    

    I have read some of his articles on Afrigeneas and yes they are rather hard to find but definitely worth reading.

  3. February 20, 2010    

    I am so glad my cousin suggested I become a fan of Afrigeneas on facebook. You have incredible information and it is helping me make strides in my family research.
    Dionne

  4. Rebekah's Gravatar Rebekah
    February 28, 2010    

    What amazes me is how intricately and with such care these so-called upstanding citizes, congressmen, took such painstaking care to keep us from knowing who were were, are and where we came from. My own family is imbued with this racist frame of thought. I know my first name but not my true last name. When I was born it was easy for a new mother to just put anyone’s name as the father. When I ask my family elders about my ancestors, their parents and grands and greats I am told to stop being nosy and that those things aren’t any of my business. All I want to know is who I am and where I am from. Africa’s a big continent. I want to know where…not what they choose to tell me.

    The beat goes on I guess…

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I blog, teach, write and lecture about family history research and it's just as rewarding today as it was when I began 18 years ago. This lifelong quest has helped me to better know my past and I've taken back--reclaimed- my kin and some of that lost memory.  

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