The Mysterious Mister John Collins: A Lesson in Census Math

One of my goals in developing this blog has been to have a space where I can not only share the results of my research projects, but to also share the hows and whys of how the stories come together.  Sharing primary source documents within the narratives fulfills part of this goal, but today’s post will take things a step farther with a more detailed how-to on analyzing data to strengthen the foundations of someone’s story.

This week, I’m working on analyzing some census data in an effort to track enslaved people across a few decades as well as attempting to locate specific people on the official census records and slave schedules.  It can feel a bit daunting to try to make heads or tails of all those hash marks and numbers. How in the world do you locate someone when the record merely counts people living on a property without attaching their names?

Welcome to what I have come to call “census math.”  Census math is simply my way of using information I have to break down those numbers on a census into more manageable and useful data.  

One of the best examples I have of using this process centers around the delightful discovery of the obituary of John Collins. I wasn’t looking for John Collins. In fact, I didn’t even know he had existed. A few years ago, I was scanning old newspapers looking for some information on Dr. John Croghan when an obituary caught my eye.

National Advocate, February 25, 1819

“At the residence of Maj. William Croghan, Locust Grove, on the 9th of January, Mr. JOHN COLLINS, aged 102 years, a native of New Jersey.

The deceased had lived in the family of Major Croghan for the last 27 years, and has uniformly enjoyed remarkable good health; he affirmed before his death that he had never, in the course of his life, been blooded or taken a single potion of physic.  What was remarkable in the deceased, was, that he considered everything his own, and would frequently threaten to dispossess merchants in Louisville of their goods unless they kept their accounts uniform and correct, but in other respects was perfectly sane.”

There’s so much to love about John Collins in his obituary.  In fact, it’s so great that it was picked up by multiple newspapers around the country which is how I found it in a newspaper from New York.  And as much as I would love to write paragraphs on the virtues of never being blooded and keeping ones’ accounts in order, I’m going to focus on the fact that he “had lived in the family of Major Croghan for the last 27 years.”

It would be an understatement to say everyone at Locust Grove was surprised to learn that John Collins had lived with the Croghan family for any length of time.  There is one letter that briefly mentions John Collins during the late 1700’s, but there are no hints that he lived with the family.  Out of the hundreds of letters we have from various Croghan family members, not one of them mentions John Collins living with them and it doesn’t appear that he was buried in the family cemetery at Locust Grove.

I love old obituaries, but I have to admit they aren’t always 100% accurate. So I had to be open to the idea that the general sentiment might be true, but the facts could be off.  Maybe the Croghans treated him like family, but it was possible Mr. Collins did not actually live at Locust Grove. I wanted to find at least one more solid source to prove or disprove if he had lived at the Grove. It was time to do some census math.

Selection from the 1810 U.S. census.  William Croghan’s listing is in the middle.

The U.S. census is conducted every ten years.  According to his obituary, John Collins died in 1819, one year before the 1820 census, which means we have to go back to the 1810 census to try to locate him.   If you look at the categories people were sorted into for the census, you learn that there were 12 “free white persons” and 35 “slaves” listed in the Croghan household. The question was, could I prove one of those free white persons was John Collins?

The first step was to make a list of anyone I knew who was likely to be living at Locust Grove in 1810.  The obvious place to start is with William Croghan, his wife, Lucy, and their eight children. Based on various source materials, I also knew that Lucy’s brother, General George Rogers Clark, had moved to Locust Grove after the amputation of his leg in 1809 and that William Croghan’s nephew, Nicholas Clarke, his wife Emilia, and their children were also living there at the time.

Figure 1. Breakdown of people who could potentially be listed in the 1810 census for the Croghan household.  Emilia Clarke’s exact birth year is currently unknown, but various sources give us an approximate age for her.

The census breaks households down into different age groups so the next step was to add how old everyone on the list was that year.  Then I needed to look at the information that is actually recorded in the census. People are separated by age and gender. It states there were six males under 10, one male aged 26-44, three males 45 and older.  There were also two females aged 26-44.

Now the fun begins! At this point, I can attempt to match people with the data I have.

Figure 2. My breakdown of free white males under the age of ten living at Locust Grove in 1810.

First up is the free white males males under 10 category.  The census tells me I need to account for six boys. The three youngest Croghans all meet the age requirement at ages eight, eight, and five which leaves three more boys to fill out the category.  All I have to do is look to my notes in Figure 1 to see that Nicholas and Emilia Clarke had children who were also in the correct age bracket. My original list included William Clarke, who was around five and Nicholas Clarke, who was three.  That left me one short.

Now, the Croghans were known to be gracious hosts who invited various family and friends to stay with them for extended periods.  Maybe the sixth boy was a random nephew? It would be easy at this point to start looking for references to a random child staying at Locust Grove, but a simple solution presents itself when you look at the next census conducted in 1820.

By 1820, Nicholas and Emilia Clarke had moved into Louisville which means they had their own household listed on the census separate from the Croghans.  A quick glance tells me the census taker noted there were three free white males under the age of 10 in their family. Boys in that category would have been born between 1811 and 1820. Census data often relied on the judgement of the census taker which means the information is often more of an approximation than 100% fact.  It’s highly likely the oldest of the three boys listed in this age group could have been born in 1810 and not 1811. The last of the six boys under 10 on the 1810 census is most likely the third son of Nicholas and Emilia Clarke.

Figure 3 shows Nicholas Clarke in the 25-44 age bracket.

There are no free white males between the ages of 11 and 24 in the Croghan household on the 1810 census.  Where are John, George, and William, Jr.? Did the census taker forget to record the three oldest Croghan children? Does this throw the veracity of the source out the window?  Actually, a quick check with various sources tells me all three were away at school and would not have been counted as residing at Locust Grove. And Nicholas Clarke neatly fills the role of the one man between 25 and 44 that is listed.

The ladies are even easier to sort than the young men.  The Croghan girls are only 13 and 9 years old in 1810, but Ann and Eliza are conspicuously absent from the census.  While it might be surprising by modern standards, family letters tell us they were also away working on their studies.  In this case, they had been sent to Mrs. Keets Domestic Academy in Springfield, Kentucky.

Figure 4. The only free white women living at Locust Grove in 1810 were Lucy Croghan and Emilia Clarke.

The census tells us there are only two free white women between the ages of 26 and 44 living at Locust Grove during this time. Based on my handy dandy list (Figure 1), Emilia Clarke is a perfect match and Lucy’s age would only be off by a year which is well within an acceptable margin of error.

Figure 5 breaks down free white males over the age of 45 living at Locust Grove in 1810.

This leaves one last category to evaluate and it’s the big one, free white males over the age of 45.  The census says there were three men in this age bracket living at Locust Grove in 1810. William Croghan and George Rogers Clark were both 58 and comfortably take two of the spots.  That leaves one last person to account for and I have found no evidence of a friend, family member, overseer, farmhand, laborer, or anyone else living at Locust Grove that year. I have only found one document to support someone of the correct age residing at the Grove in 1810 and that’s the obituary of John Collins.  There he was hanging out in the census all of these years, waiting to be discovered.

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1825 – An “Out of Time” Event

I’ve had a busy few weeks away from my computer!  My daughter and I enjoyed a girls only trip to Disney World.  My Nikon camera has needed some TLC for a while so I rented a Sony a7iii for the trip which convinced me to make the jump to mirrorless and buy it outright at the end of our vacation. That means I had a good, working camera to take a few quick snaps at an historical event the week we got home.  

Locust Grove Costumed Interpreters enjoying the view during a recent event hosting actress and author Sarah Vowell. Photo Credit Heather R. Hiner

Locust Grove hosted author and actress, Sarah Vowell for a discussion on her book Lafayette and the Somewhat United States along with a dinner to commemorate Lafayette’s 1825 visit to Louisville as part of his national tour.  Unfortunately, I was too busy in the historic home to see Sarah Vowell, but I heard much laughter drifting over from her talk, had a lovely view of the outdoor candlelit dinner, and I always love a chance to hang out with some of my favorite costumed interpreters. As I said earlier, it also gave me a chance to try out my new camera in the often tricky light of the often dark historic home.

We seem to average at least one event a year where the interpreters have a chance to step out of our normal timeframe of 1816.  It’s often a fun opportunity to step into a new role or new clothes from time to time and it can also help everything stay fresh and enjoyable for everyone.  It’s also one of the very rare times when the normally strict costuming guidelines might be relaxed a little.

Hannah made both the beautiful 1825 gown she is wearing as well as the 1825 coat for her husband, Brandon. Photo Credit Heather R. Hiner

Interpreters playing primary roles at these “out of time” events usually make, purchase, or borrow a new outfit that would fall in line with the normal costume standards of the program, only for the new year being portrayed.  If the special event only requires a very small number of interpreters or if the year is drastically out of our norm, then the program may revolve around a reduced cast dressed appropriately for the new time period.

Our lovely theatrical director in an 1825 gown she finished for the event. Photo Credit Heather R. Hiner

However, there are times when a larger cast is needed to make the event a success and this is when the guidelines may be a little softer than usual.  For the most part, the costumed interpreter program at Locust Grove is a volunteer effort. Not only do interpreters volunteer their time for meetings, rehearsals, and events, in most cases, they also provide their own historically accurate clothing.  Some sew their own outfits and others pay to have clothes made according the costuming standards of the program. For some, it can be a fun chance to make something new while other cast members may not want to pay for materials or labor to have an outfit made that they may only wear once, which is understandable.

Heather and first time interpreter, Kristie in lightly modified 1816 gowns for the event. Photo Credit Heather R. Hiner

In cases where the one time event is somewhat close to 1816 and it also requires a larger cast, we relax the standards in an effort  to keep it affordable for our volunteer interpreters. What usually happens is the most important roles are costumed to the new time period as much as possible.  Supporting cast members wear their approved 1816 clothing modified as much as they can be with the understanding that it’s not going to be perfect. So for a woman going from 1816 to 1825, she might add an extra petticoat and lower the sash on her gown.  It’s not going to produce an accurate 1825 look, but it is usually enough to blend in while most eyes are on the appropriately dressed members of the cast who may be in the spotlight more than everyone else.

Interpreters representing members of the Bullitt family in 1825. Sisters Eloise, Mary Ann, (mother) Diana, and Ann Bullitt. I have a soft spot for the Bullitt ladies so I am always happy when they make an appearance. Photo Credit Heather R. Hiner.

In a perfect world, we would have the funding to dress everyone down to historically accurate buttons at every event as our interpreters work quite hard to be as accurate as possible.  However, this compromise does work on the rare occasions we need it to.

Feel free to follow The Past in Focus on Facebook for updates or my Instagram for my portrait work along with some of the photos from my recent Disney trip and additional images of Hannah and Brandon that I will be sharing over the next few weeks!

 

The Responsibility of Someone Else’s Story

When trying to decide on what to share first, I kept going back to something I posted on my personal Facebook page a few months ago.  In the spirit of not filling my friend’s feeds with a great wall of text, I tried to pare my thoughts down as much as possible and it was still a lot for a medium that isn’t necessarily set up for sharing thoughts that are more appropriate for a blog.  As more and more of my research projects have led to a desire to share what I have found along with my thoughts on the process of unearthing facts from the past and how they translate to life today, I have finally decided to give them a more proper home here.  And since this was the post that got the ball rolling, I feel it is only appropriate to expand upon and share that original Facebook post here.

While I plan to post on a wide array of subjects, this particular project, researching the enslaved people that belonged to Croghan family of Historic Locust Grove, may be the most important research I have ever done and as such will appear quite a bit here.  I am very proud to be a volunteer at a site where bringing these stories to the forefront is a priority.

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Today, I begin to organize and expand on the research on the enslaved people of Locust Grove that I have have been doing off and on for the past two years. I find myself in a different mindset than I usually am when I tackle research. Normally, I’m energized and very focused when I settle into a research project. There’s a sense of satisfaction when I turn up something new and expand on someone’s story. I get very excited when I discover something that allows us to relate to and empathize with someone from the past. I still feel those things, but this time, there are other feelings, too.

Stone from the remains of a slave cabin at Historic Locust Grove.

I feel a greater need to turn over every stone and pebble, to find the tiniest of facts. There are so few that no matter how small, they are all significant. I find my heart heavier at times as I try to grapple with understanding lives lived that I can never fully comprehend because their experiences were so different from mine. There’s a desire to fill in the gaps and give agency and voice to these people who had so little of it in their lifetimes and who were often silenced or ignored by history. There’s anger at how the details of their lives were recorded by others and frustration on the scarcity of information available. And there’s hope, hope that I can somehow do justice to their memories, to their struggles and triumphs, and to the lives they lived.

There’s also a weight to the process.  It weighs on me.  How do I properly share someone else’s story?  Can I do justice to them? There’s concern if my self taught research skills are enough to fully convey someone’s existence that was so very different from my own.  In the end, I always circle back to the idea that something done in the spirit of love and service to another is worthwhile in spite of the fact that I am still learning the best ways to research and share.  It also drives me to keep learning how to convey these stories in a better way.

Remains of a tree growing on the foundation of a slave cabin at Historic Locust Grove.

And there’s also a beautiful solemnity to the process. This past spring, I photographed the ruins of the foundation of the slave cabin in the woods at Historic Locust Grove so they have a visual record of it’s current condition. As I was trying to figure out which pictures I needed to take, I also found myself reflecting on who might have lived there. Who from my list of names made this their home? Was this Charlotte’s house, or maybe this is where Criss lived? Or could this be the abode of Hannah, Isaac, Alfred, or someone whose name was never recorded? Who cooked meals here, raised their children, rested after a long day’s labor? We don’t know and it’s possible we never will.

But we do know this: There’s no slave cemetery at Locust Grove. We have some theories and guesses about the final resting places of these people, but ultimately, we just don’t know for sure. That, of course, is it’s own kind of indignity when you look at the family graveyard so carefully preserved. Was the “child of Beaty”, who died from bilious fever in the fall of 1832, buried in an unmarked grave outside the boundary of the family cemetery as was often the case, or was this unnamed child laid to rest somewhere else on the property?  It’s a mystery that may never be solved.

But I do know this: enslaved people lived their lives and worked to carve out their own space on the site of that cabin foundation. They existed in that space and the simple act of naming their names, of standing where they stood and remembering them is a spiritual act of remembrance.

Remains of the foundation of a slave cabin at Historic Locust Grove.

As I moved around the space, trying to find the angles to properly record the building’s remains, I couldn’t help but feel the presence of those who lived there over 200 years ago.  Standing by myself, among the scattered stones in the quiet woods, I was struck that it was a very sacred space.  And so I left my own stone, my own token of remembrance, just like I do when I visit a grave. There may not be a slave cemetery, but this space was more their’s than most on the property and it just felt right to honor their passing there, where they had lived.

How I felt as I recorded the site has become an overriding reminder of why I do this and it does add to the weight of it all. How do I do right by these people who were marginalized during their lifetimes and forgotten after their deaths? Ultimately, I know I can never fully give them the justice they deserve and that the best I can do is to gather what we have and hopefully find a few new details to fill in the narratives of their lives. And so I organize, and search, and dig, and hope I do well by them.  I share their names and their stories and honor their memories in doing so.