Census stuff

Seems like anyone that claims to be even a little bit U.S. social history oriented, needs to deal with the fact that demographic data is now available in ways it never was before. When I was trying to track down how many people had been named after Erasmus Darwin prior to 1850 in Massachusetts, I found over a hundred volumes of town Vital Records online through google books and the internet archive. The good news, of course, isn’t just that they’re available, which is good enough. But they’re full-text searchable! That means, I didn’t have to read every page of a hundred books. Which I’ll have to do with the other hundred or so I haven’t looked at yet. Which is why the project stalled -- I’m waiting for the rest of the books to be scanned!

ancestry.com has all the U.S. census forms, and they have a search engine. This is cool, because you can track a person from census to census, and see where he (yes, for most of the census years, they only took down head-of-household names, which were 99% male) lived at least every ten years. The transcription seems relatively good, but it isn’t perfect. So it pays to be a little creative with spellings, if you don’t find your person right away. And look at the original form, because you might see something the transcriber didn't, if you know what you're looking for.

Similarly, if your person has a common name and you find too many, there are tricks to narrowing down your candidates. Some of these are other sources (lots of county and town histories are also available on ancestry and google), some take advantage of the fact you can compare census data from a series of years side by side. I use this feature to try to eliminate people. If I’m looking for John Doe who lived in Springfield in 1800, and there are five John Does in the 1810 census, I can see whether some of the others lived in the same places in 1800 and 1810, and eliminate those candidates. I can also compare family sizes, since the census data (on the original forms, which can be viewed) includes counts of males and females, bracketed by age. A little quick math, and you’ve got another clue. Neither of these is foolproof, of course -- a lot can happen in ten years. But they can point you in the right direction.

So, back to my original point. All this info is available now. Seems like it’s going to be very difficult from now on, to make vague, generalized points about persistence, migration, and a whole bunch of social changes related to demographics; when you can check the numbers and say something precise. So I’m checking the numbers and names in all the places I’ll be writing about. Not because I want to do a “migration history,” but because I just can’t imagine what type of excuse I’d use to get around knowing what happened with the people, in these places I’m studying.

I think what I’m going to find is that people were a whole lot more mobile than we think they were. I’m only halfway through my first town dataset right now (the earliest one, covering 1790-1840), and it seems like as many people leave the town as die in it. This type of thing has been done on a limited basis (when it was paper-based, and
MUCH harder) for a few cities (cf. Thernstron & Knights on Boston), but I don’t think a close study has been done for a rural town. So maybe there will be some surprises. A quick glance at the 1850 census of one of the towns in Upstate NY I haven’t really started on yet, showed that over 200 people were born outside the U.S. I’m not sure of the total population yet, but that’s probably between 10% and 20%. Most of these people were young and from the U.K. (Irish slightly outnumbering English & Scottish). There were also a lot of Canadians, about a dozen Germans, a handful of French and Dutch, and one Swiss. Don’t know what this means yet -- the town isn’t right on the Erie Canal, and it’s a full generation after its construction. So these aren’t all trench diggers who decided to hang around. Maybe there are stories that no one has found because they were buried in such a huge mountain of data. Stay tuned...

More thoughts on Zinn

I posted a few more thoughts I had on rereading A People’s History of the United States, for a class discussion on our favorite popular histories, on my reading blog and on the UMass grad students’ blog (where there may even be comments!).

(click on Zinn to go to his website)

News Flash!

Well, the news is my paper proposal was accepted for the first annual Rural History conference in Brighton, England this fall! This is huge. Like becoming a charter member of a really cool new club. Rural History on the ground floor.

And while I’m there, I’ll have a chance to get to London and see the Bishopsgate archives of the Bradlaugh Papers. And run around East London; see how long it takes to walk to the City from Warner Place. Maybe I’ll make a sidetrip to Northampton and have a pint with my facebook buddy Norman.

Lots to do, lots to plan. Bottom line, Rural History is on, and so is the Bradlaugh bio. The details of getting a PhD while I’m doing all this will just have to work themselves out...

Favorite popular history

The plan was to talk about our favorite popular histories in HCR’s Writing class today. But, since I won’t be going down to campus (snow day, according to email this AM), I thought I’d post my thoughts...

My nomination is Zinn’s
People’s History of the United States. This was the first book I read that got me interested in doing history (the other one was an SF novel). I remember being surprised by the stridency, but really intrigued by all the doors he opened to events and people who I’d never heard of before. I thought, “okay, even if some of this is over the top, there’s a lot here! Why hasn’t anyone ever said anything about this stuff before?”

Looking back on it after reading more popular history, I think Zinn does a pretty good job with the facts, and a pretty good job with the narrative. And he doesn’t necessarily go for the simple “heroes and villians” characterization. For example:

“The complexity of Populist belief was shown in one of its important leaders in Texas, Charles Macune. He was a radical in economics (antitrust, anticapitalist), a conservative in politics (against a new party independent of the Democrats), and a racist.”

Zinn can easily be faulted for telling only one side of the story. I’ve been listening to two audiobooks this week on my drives (to AAS). One is Matt Damon narrating Zinn’s excerpt on the 20th century. As I’m listening to the civil rights story, what strikes me is how surprising it is, in the face of little girls getting blown up in churches, that blacks in the South didn’t grab the guns and gas cans. Zinn’s style in this section is understated but suggestive. And his foreword, where he says it’s not about projecting our anger into the past, but using it to change the present/future, is cool.

The other audiobook I’ve been listening to is Joseph Ellis‘
Founding Brothers. I’ve only listened to the (really long) introduction and the chapter on Burr and Hamilton, so maybe it changes. So far, I find myself thinking, “he’s deliberately making this into an academic exercise, to make it as irrelevant as possible to my life.” The language and the professorial narrative intrusion are a real turn-off to me. And, if anything, the stories seem less real than Zinn’s. Ellis’ embellishments (the heavy fog on the still water as Burr and Hamilton are being rowed across the Hudson) are novelistic -- but from the type of novel I’d never read. A Bulwer-Lytton “it was a dark and stormy night” type of thing, with lots of adverbs. Several times I found myself thinking, “you couldn’t possibly know that.” Maybe these things are documented in someone’s journal -- seems like the author would want to say so, unless he’s so convinced of his narrative authority he expects the reader to believe anything he says.

That’s the difference for me, I guess, between Zinn and Ellis. Even if the perspective is radical, Zinn at least talks about his sources. Note to self...