Federal Insight: Researching the 1870 US Census

This week, Hector Bahena and I worked together again on a research project. We were each assigned a page from the 1870 US Federal Census from Chicago’s 9th Ward, and – using Edwards’ Directory of the Inhabitants, Institutions, Incorporated Companies and Manufacturing Establishments of the City of Chicago for 1869 and 1871 – attempted to track down the addresses of the families on our respective pages.

My page had ten households on it, and looking over this page offers a good deal of insight into the composition of the Ninth Ward (which in 1870 ran north to Van Buren, south to Roosevelt, west to Loomis, and east to the river). On my sheet, the oldest individual is 55, and the youngest is little more than a few weeks old. None of the household heads were native-born Americans, with half being born in Ireland, and the rest being from Canada and England. Nearly all of the children were native-born in the US, with some being born in Chicago and others in different parts of the country. Of the ten households, three are headed by women, most of whom were likely widows. The families are not all nuclear families: newlyweds Frank and Annie Sollett had two children living with them who had a different surname. Widowed Mary O’Brien had a young mother from Ireland and her daughter living in her household. All of the men are workers – laborers, carpenters, painters. Many of the women are housekeepers who likely worked as maids or cleaners for upper class families. This specific snapshot shows a working ward, filled with immigrants. If the heavily Irish nature is to be any indication, it is also a Catholic ward.

My census page

My census page (688)

On combining our data, a few things changed. Hector’s page showed a much higher number of citizens born in England. However, many still hailed from Ireland and many native-born Americans filled the list. I was surprised to see that for the forty new individuals added, only one new profession appeared: a Richard Dresdold appeared to have been a shoe maker. The overwhelming career for the men we viewed was work as a laborer. Overall, the data from Hector’s page seems to more or less appear similar to my own. A good deal of the families seem to be from abroad – yet all are from Anglophone nations, Ireland and England specifically. All are working class families, and for the most part my and Hector’s census pages seem to be one in the same. The one thing worth noting is that while my families were all completely literate, several on Hector’s page showed an inability to read or write – all of these individuals were foreign-born. It would be interesting to see a wider view of literacy in the ward, as my page had led me to believe that nearly all citizens must have been literate.

Hector's page (689)

Hector’s page (689)

This type of exercise offers great opportunities for research. Looking at the ethnic and social backgrounds of particular areas of the city can allow one to track its changing composition through the decades. The vast resources of the census records, combined with good directories and maps, can allow for accurate plotting of nationalities and workers throughout Chicago (and other cities). The capabilities of modern databases, including Ancestry, allow for quick access to volumes of data, while platforms like Google Fusion Tables allow for excellent recording and presentation of this information. Hector and I pooled our information into a Fusion Table, which can be viewed here. The easy recording of the data allows for quick chart making, such as the charts below which detail the professions of the men and women in our census pages. However, there are many difficulties one will likely encounter in doing such research, as I did while working on this project.

meta-chart (4)

Graphs of the professions of the men and women of the Ninth Ward as detailed in pages 688-89 of the 1870 US Census

One of the major issues I had was in trying to pin down precise locations for each household. As can be seen in my table, I was not able to find any location information for three of my households. Even for the ones that I did, my confidence in their accuracy is shaky at best. When the census data lists a John Burke working as a laborer, and the directory lists 25 or more John Burkes, six of whom are laborers, I struggled to pin down an exact address with any real confidence. I relied on two maps, including Samuel Augustus Mitchell’s 1870 map of the city, and Rufus Blanchard’s 1872 map. While I could use these maps to narrow down my possible addresses, when the 1869 and 1871 directories show a couple of John Burkes who lived near the Ninth Ward, it is hard to be sure in choosing the correct address. With more time to go over maps of the Ninth Ward, I probably could have more confidence in my locations. Even so, this would not help me when the directory fails to provide addresses for some of my families.

It also seem as though the directory was not perfect. One of my families is listed in the census records as “Carmidy”, headed by an Irish-born painter named Michael. There is no entry for any Carmidy in the 1869 or 1871 directory, but there is a record of a painter named Michael Carmody living at 93 William Street (quick side note: the 1869 directory lists the address as William Street, while the 1871 directory calls it W. Williams Street). This location would place the family within the Ninth Ward. It seems entirely possible to me that the directory publishers accidentally listed Michael Carmidy as Michael Carmody. I know that when my great-grandparents immigrated to the US, they ran into a similar issue upon arriving: their family name of Byrom was accidentally listed as Byron by the customs agents. This slip-up has caused bureaucratic difficulty for our family ever since as some of our familial records are listed under a different surname.

In all, I think this sort of research can offer great opportunities to the committed researcher. I am disappointed that I cannot report my household locations with greater confidence, but feel that my given addresses are more or less acceptable. Location aside, looking through the census records still is an enlightening experience. To be able to view such extensive records so easily is remarkable, and the insight gained from even one page shows the potential of an aggregation of data. With more census records, we could view a greater picture of the ethnic makeup of this section of Chicago as it was immediately before the Great Fire. Information on social status, labor conditions, and more can be gleaned from census records. Though it takes some commitment, the payoff of such research can be rewarding and insightful.


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