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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