The 1900 Census in 1900

Censuses are the bedrock of genealogy.  More than any other record they track our ancestors through time as they grow up, get married, have children, suffer losses, move addresses, and change professions.  But for as useful as they are, they are frustratingly unreliable.  Why don’t people admit they’ve aged ten years from one census to the next?  Why do their names sometime differ dramatically from what they’re supposed to be?  Why aren’t countries of origin and dates of immigration consistent over time?  Despite being government records, we can’t take censuses at face-value without corroborating evidence, and so we spend an awful lot of time debating how the information they’ve recorded got so bolluxed up.

youmustanswerA trove of articles I’ve uncovered from The News-Messenger, the local paper of Homestead, Pennsylvania, sheds some light on these discrepancies from the perspective of the census takers in 1900.  It’s clear that everyone understood the odds were against the enumerators to get accurate information, but the paper went to great lengths to ensure that “Homestead will not be found in the [class represented] as obstructing the endeavors of the enumerators to get the exact truth in the information they seek” (5/2/1900).  It started by printing the census instructions several times to prepare readers with the list of questions they’d be asked and how to be sure of answering them accurately.  In case the instructions weren’t enough, an often hilarious article from May 17, 1900 resorted to dire warnings: Continue reading

An Accident of the Lunar Calendar, 1888

Thanksgivukkah 2013Tomorrow, for the last time until the year 79811, Thanksgiving overlaps with Chanukah, the Jewish Festival of Lights celebrating the Maccabees’ victory over the Greeks.  There have been only two previous Thanksgivukkahs since Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving in 1863.  Naturally the word — and all the attendant marketing — are solely a product of our times, but here are some highlights of how the first one was reported in 1888, when people still couldn’t agree how to spell Chanukah (Chanucca?!) and the holiday had to be explained to readers variously as the “Jewish Thanksgiving” or the “Jewish Christmas.”


The Jewish Thanksgiving

To-morrow is recorded on the Hebrew calendar as Chanukah, the Jewish Thanksgiving, and it will be observed in much the same manner as the national holiday.  It is the occasion of entertainments and the extending of aid to the poor…

Cleveland Herald, November 28, 1888


How Hebrews Commemorate Achievements of Judas Maccabeus

Beginning this evening, Chanucca, the Feast of Dedication, or as called by Josephus, the “Feast of Lights,” will be observed by the Jews all over the world.  By an accident of the lunar calendar it is celebrated by the Israelites of this country this year in conjunction with Thanksgiving Day.  Several years ago it fell late in December, when it was compared to Christmas

Baltimore Sun, November 28, 1888


Thanksgivukkah GothicTWIN FESTIVALS
A Memorable Day for the Hebrews of New York

In perfect consonance with the sentiments above expressed, the one hundred thousand Hebrews and more of New York city yesterday celebrated a double Thanksgiving.  It just happened that both the Thanksgiving and the Chanuka festivals occurred on the same day.

Loyal to the core as American citizens, not a single Hebrew congregation failed to observe the President’s commands, the words of whose proclamation were recited distinctly from the pulpit of every synagogue in this city.  The feast of the Chanuka does not call for any especial services in the places of public worship, as its observance is one more congenial to the home than to the church.  Yet any one who visited the various synagogues yesterday must have been astonished at the large number of worshippers present.

The two festivals merged well together.  The great American Thanksgiving was an incentive to these people to pour out their hearts before God and to make them feel that for once they were made to understand that all people are one before the Lord.  At the same time the Chanuka, or festival of dedication, celebrated for ages by their ancestors, appeared to them again as a thanksgiving festival for deliverance from the tyranny of that Syrian despot, Antiochus..


Combined Thanksgiving and Chanuka services were held by the Congregation Gates of Prayer, Rev. Dr. de Sola Mendes, in the synagogue in Forty-fourth street…  Dr. Mendes spoke as follows: —

“‘Enter ye his gates with thanksgiving, his courts with praise; give thanks unto him; glorify his name.’  So spoke the Jewish psalmist of old, and in words that have become immortal.  So speaks the great and reverent heart of the mighty nation which distinguishes itself from all others by the institution of an annual day of Thanksgiving. It is a nation that is not too busy to take a day for the expression of gratitude toward the Giver of all good.  Although we, as observant Hebrews, have already celebrated our Feast of Tabernacles, our harvest home, still proud are we of the opportunity of worshipping with our brethren of other faiths, and we are the last to grudge an additional day of duty to God in the busy year.  The American nation, rising above differences of religious belief, says ‘as long as ye are worthy citizens, loving what is right and doing it, it shall be no man’s business to ask you what your religious faith is…'”

New York Herald, November 30, 1888

Thank Lange Eylandt for Santa Claus

Over the centuries Christmas in the United States has taken on a number of unique observances, some enjoyed and others lamented.  We may bemoan how Jolly Old St. Nicholas has been turned by some into an excuse for materialism, but long before these culture wars, everyone’s favorite Christmas character got his start right here in the United States as the byproduct of a different culture war from two centuries ago!

To understand where Santa Claus came from, we have to return to the days when New York was a battleground.  No, not the Revolutionary War and its aftermath, but 150 years before that, when Long Island, New York was a battleground between a different set of rival colonial powers vying for continental supremacy:  the English and the Dutch.

Lange Eylandt

For forty years between 1624 and 1664, Holland, the great seafaring power of the age, attempted to colonize the swath of land between Connecticut and Delaware, using Manhattan as its base.  New Netherland, as the region was known, was always an afterthought to its Dutch rulers, however, and it never received enough supplies, people, or financing to truly flourish.  On Long Island, or Lange Eylandt in Dutch, the newly settled villages on its western tip — Brooklyn, Flatbush, Flatlands, New Utrecht, and Bushwick – were insufficiently defended against attack by Native Americans and neglected in services such as the state-supported religion, sharing an overworked itinerant minister between them.

Then arrived in Dutch territory an influx of English settlers accustomed to New England’s colonial model of local townsmen participating in government affairs. During the Great Migration, English Puritans settled Boston and rapidly pushed New England’s frontiers in all directions.  Within a decade the new colony of New Haven on the southern New England coast was not only established, but also seeking to expand, which they did by crossing the Long Island Sound and settling eastern Long Island. Around the same time, other English colonists came to New Netherland, explicitly agreeing to reside under Dutch authority.  Hempstead, for example, was an early English settlement within Dutch jurisdiction, and Gravesend (now in Brooklyn), was founded by Lady Deborah Moody, who was permitted by the Dutch to settle with her fellow religious dissenters.  And there also grew heterogeneous communities like Flushing (now in Queens).

It was only a matter of time before the growing number of Anglophones on Long Island became discontent with Dutch authority — and the long-standing weaknesses of the Dutch rulers left them ill-equipped to deal with the grievances. Taxes were high, leading to tax revolts, and democratic representation was even more limited than it was under English rule, resulting in petitions to Holland against the local ruler, Peter Stuyvesant.  Quakers chafed at (Dutch) Reformed Church dominance, and most frustratingly of all, the Dutch continued to mismanage their relationship with Native Americans, leaving isolated Long Island towns vulnerable to attack.  The situation escalated to the point where some Anglophone Long Islanders connived with English authorities across the sound in New Haven and across the ocean in London to attack Manhattan, the seat of Dutch power.  They lobbied for the English to send a fleet to conquer all of New Netherland and even formed their own regiment to assist.  The English fleet sailed into New York Harbor in 1664, and Stuyvesant, greatly outnumbered, surrendered without a fight.


The Dutch colony’s Long Island towns, insufficiently maintained from the start, were largely eroded from within by the time Stuyvesant surrendered.  However, the Dutch families of Long Island retained their unique identity for generations after the English conquest.  The mystique of that brief, but bygone era intrigued many New Yorkers, mostly notably Washington Irving in the early 19th century.  By the end of that century, when it was clear that Dutch village life was finally collapsing under the weight of modernization, historians and genealogists rushed to freeze time.

Flatbush church

Dutch cultural influence lives on in Long Island via the Reformed Church. Flatbush Reformed Church, pictured, thrives to this day!

A seminal genealogy from this period can be found in Teunis G. Bergen’s Register…of Early Settlers of Kings County, Long Island, N.Y., first published in 1881.  Also published in 1881 was Gertrude Lefferts Vanderbilt’s delightfully snarky Social History of Flatbush.  In the late 19th century fraternal and heritage organizations incorporating Dutch Long Islanders burgeoned:  there’s now the Holland Society, the Knickerbocker Club, the Society of Old Brooklynites, and especially the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, whose annual reports and yearbooks dutifully transcribe and translate ship manifests and church and cemetery records from this period.  The New York State Archives has complemented this work, producing new translations of court records and government and West India Company correspondence on a regular basis.  In 1999 David Riker produced The Genealogical and Biographical Register to Persons in New Netherland, aggregating hundreds of resources into a tidy, four-volume work.  Contemporary scholars continue to document the shift from Dutch to English culture in the New York area.  Joyce Goodfriend’s Before the Melting Pot analyzes how the Dutch language was phased out of use, and Russell Shorto’s Island at the Center of the World points out where bits of Dutch culture linger in contemporary US culture.

Which brings us back to Santa Claus!

Asher Durand / Dutch village

Early 19th c. writer Washington Irving recast Dutch colonial life as a unendingly jolly, and Asher Durand created images to match. In The Island at the Center of the World Russell Shorto reminds us that the Dutch were hustling capitalists just as New Yorkers were in Irving’s time.

His creation is the result of patricians John Pintard, Washington Irving, and Clement Moore, the first to call themselves Knickerbockers, who were nostalgic even in the early 1800s for the faded Dutch culture in which, they believed, elites like themselves weren’t under siege.  The three men latched onto the winter holiday figure of Sinterklaas, celebrated by the Dutch on St. Nicholas’ Eve in early December, and their publications collectively transformed this centuries-old figure into the modern Santa Claus who flies in a sleigh pulled by reindeer and enters houses through the chimney to fill children’s stockings with presents.  Ironically, to Pintard, Irving, and Moore Santa Claus represented a better New York before capitalism transformed the city, but today, of course, the figure of Santa Claus arguably helps drive the kind of consumerism the men disdained.

So, if you think about Santa during Christmas Eve tonight, instead of picturing him and his sleigh flying overhead, think of Holland and England duking it out for control of North America!

Not Happy Thanksgiving, but Happy Evacuation Day

Tearing down the Union Jack on Evacuation Day

Eager Americans tearing down the Union Jack (nailed up to a greased flagpole by the petulant Lobsterbacks) on Evacuation Day.  In subsequent commemorations boys would compete to perform this feat themselves!

In the U.S. late November has long been defined by the Thanksgiving holiday and its message of gratitude.  But in New York for the first half of our history the defining holiday of November commemorated not this 1621 Pilgrim harvest feast, but an arguably more seminal moment in the country’s establishment:  the long-overdue evacuation of the British from New York City in 1783, more than two years after the Revolutionary War’s last major engagement at Yorktown.  It wasn’t just soldiers who evacuated on that day, though.  1,500 Loyalist civilians, the last of a months-long exodus that may have numbered 40,000, departed as well.  We know how the story continues for the Patriots who built our country.  But what of the evacuees, who risked everything simply for their desire to live under the same form of government that had been in place for generations?

Their story begins at the start of the war, when the British had conquered New York in August 1776.  Shortly thereafter, a huge and mysterious fire destroyed much of the city.  Of those who remained in town, those with Patriotic leanings were left in the slums of the “Tent City,” while British officers and prominent Loyalists occupied the choicest residences, regardless of ownership.  As a result, after the British defeat at Yorktown in 1781, New York City was the most obvious destination for Loyalists from across the thirteen former colonies.  But Patriot New Yorkers returned in droves, and the passage of 1783 Trespass Act gave them a legal pathway to make claim on properties utilized by Loyalists during the war years.  Patriot claimants were even indemnified against counter-suits by known Loyalists!  Add to the mix thousands of nervous African Loyalists, whose freedom was unclear, and an unknown number of bounty hunters, and you’ll understand how occupied New York City became increasingly chaotic as the peace negotiations in Europe dragged on.

Sir Guy Carleton

An honorable Redcoat?  Carleton freed the slaves who fought with the British and safely evacuated Loyalists.

After numerous brawls and a few coordinated attacks against the hated Tories, British General Sir Guy Carleton declared it his intention to protect the life and property of loyal subjects, and he wouldn’t relinquish the city until his job was complete.  He helped establish a joint Board of Claims, the first in a long list of ways Loyalists would attempt to win reparations for their lost property over the next fifty years.  He also remained steadfast against General George Washington’s objections to freeing the slaves who had run away from their owners when the British promised emancipation to any who would fight against the Americans.  And during that last summer of the occupation, the British government gave free passage to Loyalists to other ports in the empire, primarily Canada — a promise that flabbergasted those in charge of the retreating military’s logistics!   In the end approximately 40,000 Loyalists, including 3,500 Black Loyalists, were evacuated safely to Canada or Nova Scotia.

Washington on Evaucation Day

Washington’s triumphal entry into NYC on Evacuation Day.

All of this is a lot to take in!  Americans who hated the Declaration of Independence…a New York teeming with enemy soldiers…our most heroic Founding Father tarnishing his reputation to keep men who risked their lives for their own freedom enslaved.   Also unexpected for students of American history is the pride Canadians take in their Tory forebears:

United Empire Loyalists monument, Hamilton, Ontario

United Empire Loyalist monument in Hamilton, Ontario. The accompanying plaque reads:
This Monument is Dedicated to the Lasting Memory of The United Empire Loyalists who, after the Declaration of Independence, came into British America from the seceded American Colonies and who, with faith and fortitude, and under great pioneering difficulties, largely laid the foundations of this Canadian nation as an integral part of the British Empire.
Neither confiscation of their property, the pitiless persecution of their kinsmen in revolt, nor the galling chains of imprisonment could break their spirits, or divorce them from a loyalty almost without parallel.
“No country ever had such founders — no country in the world — no, not since the days of Abraham.” — Lady Tennyson

Shelburne, Nova Scotia

Proudly Tory Shelburne, Nova Scotia, also the site of race riots against Black Loyalists in 1784.  Half of this group took the opportunity offered by the British government to begin anew in Sierra Leone in 1792.

American LoyalistsLoyalist genealogical associations began to blossom, particularly in Canada, with the 1847 publication of The American Loyalists, or, Biographical Sketches of Adherents to the British Crown in the War of the Revolution by Lorenzo Sabine, a New England businessman and politician with no familial connection to Loyalism.   Coining the term United Empire Loyalists, Sabine invigorated descendents of Loyalists to honor their ancestors and acknowledge the hardships they endured.  Sabine’s work is now regarded as a starting point in Loyalist genealogy.  It gives the most attention to those prominent men who often managed to transfer their wealth and/or power from one imperial outpost to another:  an example is Charles Inglis, the rector of New York’s famous Trinity Church and author of The Deceiver Unmasked; or, Loyalty and Interest United: in answer to a pamphlet entitled Common Sense (as in, Thomas Paine’s revolutionary pamphlet Common Sense), who became the first Bishop of Nova Scotia in 1787.

Today there’s a lot more you can read about these families, whether you are researching your own roots or fascinated by this lost chapter in U.S. history.  Genealogists such as Gregory Palmer and Paul Bunnell have updated and vastly expanded Sabine’s work, taking more systematic and scientific approaches to tracking all Loyalists, regardless of economic circumstances, political stature, gender, or race.  Between them they have mined tens of thousands of Loyalists claims and found evidence of Loyalist migrations to the furthest corners of the British Empire.  Historian Philip Ranlet provides remarkable depth to New York loyalism in particular, outlining the continuum of these British subjects’ political activism, which ranged from passive obedience, to militant Toryism via regiments that weeded out disloyal neighbors and took on Continental soldiers (loyalist New York City troops alone made up four battalions!).  Further complicating the range of Tory identities, Richard Ketchum argues that many New York Loyalists began as active reformers against onerous Parliamentary acts in the 1760s, but ultimately drew the line at full-fledged revolt.  And Black Loyalists get special attention from James Walker, who researched their arduous journeys from the 13 colonies to Nova Scotia and onto Sierra Leone in a protracted effort to gain true freedom.

There is so much in this history that complicates the straightforward narrative we Americans are typically taught about the founding of our nation.  Like Evacuation Day, Thanksgiving certainly comes with its own troubling questions — the harmony between Pilgrims and Native Americans did not last much beyond that one meal, as is well known — but regardless of which holiday we observe this week, nothing is more American than thinking critically about our history to make a better world.  Let’s be grateful we live in a country where we can do so!

Pretends to be Free

Pretends to be FreeAs genealogists broaden their interests beyond their most illustrious forebears to include their least, specialized kinds of records must be sourced to flesh out the story of people who were overlooked in their own time.  The descendents of enslaved Americans, who never even had birth certificates, marriage records, or proper tombstones, face a rather extreme version of this challenge.  But personal records do survive in unexpected corners.  One underutilized resource that provides insight, and perhaps inadvertent dignity, to early American slaves is a collection of runaway slave ads reprinted in Graham Hodges‘ 1994 book Pretends to Be Free:  Runaway Slave Advertisements from Colonial & Revolutionary New York & New Jersey.  The “top of an ill-defined iceberg,” the 753 fugitive slaves described in these ads stand out as individual personalities representing a forgotten and largely unmemorialized group.

New York Gazette and the Weekly MercuryTake, for instance, the ad placed in the loyalist New York Gazette and the Weekly Mercury for Betty, a rare example of a female runaway, who left her master while New York was under British occupation in 1777.

A NEGRO WENCH, RUN-AWAY, supposed to Flatbush, on Long-Island, where she was lately purchased of Cornelius Van Der Veer, jun. is about 2[ ] years old, call’d BETTY, can speak Dutch and English, is of a stubborn disposition, especially when she drinks spirituous liquors, which she is sometimes too fond of; is a pretty stout wench, but not tall, smooth fac’d and pretty black; ’tis probable she may be conceal’d in this city.  Whoever harbours her will be prosecuted, but such as give information to Wm. Tongue, her owner, in Hanover-Square, shall receive FIVE DOLLARS with thanks.  She usually wore a striped homespun pettycoat and gown.

Here’s the context lacking from the ad:  Much of the city had burnt in a massive September 1776 fire, and the Van der Veer family, her former owner, was particularly reeling: several of its men were serving in what was to become known as the Continental Army, and one Van der Veer, a military surgeon, may have already been captured.  This information, readily available to any history buff, likely explains why Betty was sold.

But the biographical details about Betty are unique to this source.  Though the description of her character is tainted by the frustrations of her owner, it’s also likely the only assessment of her personality that exists.  Between the lines one can detect her positive qualities — her opportunism, commitment to the family she was taken from, and her determination to gain her freedom — as well as clues with research potential.  For example, the fact that she is bilingual in Dutch and English indicates that she must have deep connections to her destination, Flatbush, as this agricultural corner of Brooklyn retained its Dutch character for generations after Peter Stuyvesant’s surrender in 1664.

Another ad, also in a 1777 issue of the Gazette, seeks the return of 25 year old Harman.  In it, one can almost sense the indignation of the person writing the ad after Harman’s second disappearance.

TEN DOLDARS Reward.  LEFT Brigadier General De Lancey’s service, from his farm at Bloomingdale. a negro fellow named HARMAN, of a yellowish colour, broad face and shoulders, hollow back, big buttocks, and remarkable strong well shaped legs, with a very large foot, is about 25 years of age, understands farming.  Had on a Dutch Thrumb’d cap, a blue sailors jacket, speckled or white shirt, good trowsers and shoes, with a spare buckskin breeches.  This is his second elopement, and by his dress may induce masters of ships to entertain him, who are requested to deliver him to New-York goal.  Whoever takes him up shall have the above reward paid by General DeLancey, the printer, or Mr. Joseph Allicocke.

Harman’s fine dress was atypical — most runaways had only the standard slave attire of buckskin britches and tow cloth shirts.  As the ad notes, this advantage gave him an unusual form of cover… or is the writer insinuating something more about his character and intentions?

It would have been well-known to readers that Harman’s owner, the notorious loyalist General Oliver DeLancey, was away at the front with the regiments he personally financed, and Joseph Allicocke, another prominent loyalist, was responsible for collecting him.  It turns out Harman’s timing was prescient as well as opportunistic: the DeLancey manor house was ransacked by patriots a few months later.

Harman and Betty were part of a dramatic increase in the number of runaway slaves during the war.  Some even fought for the country’s independence — or against their former masters.  The most famous of these is the subject of his own ad:  “Run away from the subscriber, living in Shrewsbury, in the county of Monmouth, New-Jersey, a NEGROE man, named Titus, but may probably change his name..”  Indeed, Titus, became Colonel Tye, a Loyalist commander who led raids against the Americans.  (You can read more about the fate of these Black Loyalists here.)

From these examples one gets a sense of the valuable information that these runaway slave ads can provide genealogists.  They are rich in both names and stories; masters, slaves, agents, printers, and locations are all described.  More than that, the perverse level of detail in which owners documented their lost property ironically gives us some of the most complete human portraits we have of enslaved Americans.  Ads routinely list scars, bad habits, skills with animals, farming, trades, languages spoken, and even musical aptitude (42% of runaways were musicians!). Family and geographical connections are at times made plain, shedding rare insight into a group of people for whom a more traditional paper trail does not exist.

As genealogists we always need to keep in mind that resources are always most useful when used in conjunction with each other.  How do these ads compare to family records?  Do bills of sales or receipts in ledgers help us paint a broader picture of the lives of both slaves and masters?  And what of the family burial ground?  If you’re one of the rare genealogists who has been able to trace your enslaved ancestors to the Colonial period, comparing your existing records to these ads might reveal a lost chapter of courage in your family’s history.  And for those without a traceable connection to these people, the glimpses into slave culture and masters’ perceptions of their property reveal details about this period that history books too often gloss over.

Though Pretends to Be Free is a difficult and expensive book to purchase, much of it is available on Google Books, and it is held by many large public libraries.  Search to find a copy near you, or your local librarian can help you utilize the interlibrary loan network.