TUESDAY'S TEST (Interpreting Census Households): EE's Answer

16 April 2014

Yesterday, we posed a "test." You've brain-stormed the document well and offered good insight.  One relevant issue has not been raised. It’s one that absolutely affects the answer to the question we posed against yesterday's document.  So you don't have to flip back to that blog post, here's the problem:

Census records are a mainstay of research into past societies. While using them, we encounter many situations that prompt us to think, Hunh?  Why is this? Are my prior assumptions wrong? The 1850 U.S. Census of St. Landry Parish, Louisiana, presents one of those situations. The population schedule shows the following three individuals:1

Other evidence suggests that Marguerite is the mother of Samuel and Ferdinand. Does somthing strike you as peculiar?  (Source: 1850 U.S. census, St. Landry Parish, Louisiana, population schedule, stamped p. 7 verso; digital image, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.3.1/TH-266-11775-145479-31?cc=1401638O : accessed 30 March 2014).)

In your answers to that question, you have flagged three issues:

  1. Different surnames (you suggest multiple husbands)
  2. Different households (you suggest likelihood of a second house on the property with sons living “on their own,” with Marguerite providing the house in which they lived)
  3. Marguerite owns real estate; alleged sons don’t.

Here's the kicker:

Is it enough to know that Marguerite “owns real estate”?  Do you not wonder what her $300 worth of property meant in her society? How did her holdings—and her lifestyle—compare to her neighborhood?  On her page alone, we see eight property-holders whose valuations are $6000, $5000, $2500, $800, $600, $600, $500, and $300.

Marguerite, at $300, is dead last. The mean worth of surrounding neighbors, ca. $700, is more than twice her value. The average, $2030, is nearly seven times her worth. Under these circumstances, would a widowed 60-year-old woman live in a home by herself while providing a second house for her two unmarried sons? If she had a second dwelling on her property, why would she not use it as a source of income? In her economic strata, a few dollars of rent would mean the difference in being able to call a doctor or pay for medicine when needed.

In some cultures, as you have noted, providing a separate dwelling for elderly parents was a custom for those who could afford it. In some cultures, providing young adult sons with separate quarters (or personal entrances to and from the family dwelling) was also customary—for those who could afford it and were liberal enough to believe that young adult males should come and go without restriction or supervision.

So what pattern does the census suggest for this community? Do we find other instances in which a mother lived alone, while young adult and unmarried sons had an independent dwelling next door?  No. If we search for landowning families with young adult but unmarried males, we find, for example:

  • #94/104    Mrs. Chs. Littell, $55,000, with Théophile (31) and Isaac (23) still in the family home.
  • #98/109    Jessy Andress, $10,000, with Addison (25) still in the family home
  • #196/221  Joseph Carriere, $7,000, with Jules (24) and Victor (19) still in the family home.
  • Etc.

Considering these factors, it is difficult to conclude that an aging widow, with a subsistence-level existence, would live in one dwelling, all alone, and provide two sons with a separate dwelling. Lacking evidence to support a tradition that Marguerite was mother to the Hook males, we would be justified in questioning it. In this case, the proof was not hard to find.

The likeliest explanation for the assignment of Marguerite and her sons to separate households lies in two facts. (1) Their surnames were different from hers. (2) Census takers considered themselves underpaid—and their fee was based on the number of households visited. When an opportunity arose to separate individuals into separate households, many enumerators did just that. Indeed, a study of census instructions in later decades, as they became more explicit, informs us that enumerators were instructed to enumerate related people under the same roof as separate "families" and "households” under various circumstances.

The bottom line: How many of us, if we were studying Marguerite La Combe (or the Hook brothers) and we were not pre-informed of their connection, would treat one household in isolation of the other? Or, would you look at the data in your dwelling-of-interest, compare it to the community pattern, and think: “Hmhh. The situation here is so aberrant that the people in these ‘separate dwellings’ might very well be connected?”

Blog Term

Submitted byJadeon Wed, 04/16/2014 - 19:31

I neglected to pose the possibility that the boys were living on an adjacent property that was owned by someone else.  Once again I made assumptions based on a general situational description.

Unfortunately I lack ready access to deeds and to an 1850 US Census Agricultural Schedule for this vicinity, which might have shed some light.

Our taskmaster does not give a reason for saying "If she had a second dwelling on her property, why would she not use it as a source of income," with the implication that Marguerite was ~not~ being at least partly supported by ?her sons.  Subsistence agreements between parent(s) and child(ren), with promise of or actual conveyance of property, can be found in recorded deeds, but may not be formally recorded.  Documentation of further history of Marguerite's land would be helpful.  At present we lack evidence as to whether Marguerite was or was not receiving subsistence, and whether she owned other property that was income-producing in some way.

Even had I noted the low valuation of Marguerite's property relative to others' holdings in this vicinity, I would not have found the Census data for these three people to be peculiar absent deeds and other documentation that did not offer direct explanations.