December 18, 2008

I Nicked the Census Man

One of my favorite movies is Oh Brother Where Art Thou? If you haven't seen it.... run out now and rent it. It's spit-out your popcorn funny!

Quote from the movie:
CHILD at front door with double-barrelled shotgun: "You men from the bank?"
PETE, one of 3 escaped convicts, looking for a hiding place: "You Wash's boy?"
CHILD: "Yassir! And Daddy tolt me I'm to shoot whosoever from the bank!"
He pokes his shotgun at the three men, who raise their hands.
DELMAR: "Well, we ain't from no bank, young feller."
CHILD: "Yassir! I's also s'pose to shoot folks servin' papers!"
DELMAR: "Well, we ain't got no papers."
CHILD: "Yassir! I nicked the census man!"
DELMAR: "Now, there's a good boy. Is your daddy about?"

Ah, the Census Man. I wonder just how many did "get nicked" in the line of duty?
I have a passion for genealogic research of my family tree. I have spent countless hours over the past 30 years, looking at the census records of the 1800's. The census was taken every 10 years. The census taker would walk, through all kinds of weather, with his/her book and ink pen from shanty to shack, farm to farm, plantation to plantation, in his quest to count everyone in the district. He was to record names, ages, sexes, heads of household, occupation, children, slaves, servants, literacy and mother-in-laws living with them.

My imagination runs wild when I read a census page. Basically knowing what that family's statistics were 10 years before, it's amazing to me how the census taker managed to foul up the spelling and ages of names. I once saw Josephine spelled Hoseifeen. And I have proof that women have been lying about their age for centuries! Perhaps their errors weren't the fault of them alone. Perhaps the only person home to answer questions was the father and his mule or oxen plowing the field. "Ma and the younguns are over visiting Aunt Euphenagia down yonder a spell." Asking any man, the names and ages of his children is always a crap-shoot. And would he have the foggiest idea about his mother-in-law's name and age, who has been living with him now these past 13 years? "Yes Sir, Mama don't read nor write neither!" Not that he would pay attention if she did.
A census tells so much information. If there was a 2 year old boy in 1850 but he doesn't appear in 1860 then chances are he had passed away by illness or accident. I once saw the Foster family with 3 children. They owned an Inn in Virginia where they had a Judge, school teacher and 2 tailors renting from them. Other records showed that all 3 children died the same day (house fire). Ten years later, the parents, Isaac and Mary, had traveled to Kansas. Mary had given birth along the way. They arrived in Atchison, had 3 more children and then the parents and the oldest daughter died of small pox leaving the youngest 3 children as orphans. My ancestor, Josie, was the oldest of the three living children. A tale that was found reading the census records.

The people of the last 3 centuries had hard lives. Hard work and tragedy filled their days. Their experiences made them tough and faithful. Their tenacity forged a new nation and left a mark on the generations that followed. I love studing their lives and find myself lost in it. Oh, what I would give for a time machine.
Yes, it would be wonderful to transport myself to the grassy knoll on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, in Dallas, Texas at 12:30 p.m. to see where those bullets REALLY came from. Or I could arrive just as a 1,406 pound meteor fragment drops outside of Flagstaff, Arizona. Or I could put myself in the cockpit of Amelia Earhart's plane in July 1937 and find out what island she has been living on all these years.
Instead, though, I would really like to visit with my ancestors. I would love to take my time machine up the road from the Shelton Plantation, Rural Plains, on a cool October day, in 1754. After "landing", with autumn leaves rustling as I walked, I'd quietly steal behind the rest of the family to witness the marriage of soon-to-be Governor Patrick Henry to my 16 year-old 5th Great Aunt Sarah Shelton. I'd stand next to her sister, my 5th Great Grandmother, Elizabeth, and take in the setting. What a joyous occasion. I know the marriage ceremony took place at the mansion. Was it outside on a beautiful fall day or did it take place inside?
I will continue to dream of my time machine.

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