In recent days, I’ve been working with the census records of my county, Barren. I’ve been running a count and names of those involved in various occupations on the 1850, 1860 and 1870 censuses (and hopefully beyond). I'm sure that this county is typical of many of the counties in Kentucky, except perhaps those involving Louisville, Lexington and other counties with large cities.
In the 1850’s, farming ruled. Page after page of names show the same information – farming. This was the backbone of the state. The citizens were self-sufficient – if they ate it, they grew it to the largest extent. International trading was rarer in the state than those along the east coast. Products from Kentucky were shipped south and to the larger cities, but they fed their own people first and foremost.
Blacksmiths ruled. In 1850, there were 93 blacksmiths in our county. Everyone depended on the blacksmith to keep their horses and oxen shoed, to pull the family wagon and to plow the fields. Surprisingly to us today, there was an ample supply of school teachers although the school term might be as short as three months. Other occupations were typical of the era: house carpenters, stone masons, ministers, miners, and sufficient lawyers!
By 1860, there is a subtle change. The categories are basically the same and farmers again are the main source of income. Houses have been built for the citizens, except for the newcomers but house joiners and carpenters were still much in demand. More stores have been opened and employed their clerks. School teachers seemed to hold pretty steady with young men teaching who were sometimes the age of the older students. However, there is something in the air – a sense that a change is coming.
The Civil War then interrupted many things. Healthy young men were soon to find themselves fighting other healthy young men – sometimes their own family or friends. Marriages slowed to a crawl, deaths took its place. Women took over the men’s work and not only ran the household but did as much of the farming as possible and things “fragile” ladies never dreamed they could tackle.
By 1870, the war was over and Kentucky started to regain its momentum. The slaves were thankfully freed but many had no education, no training, no money. They had as rough a time in many instances as when they were enslaved. Many white landowners gave their former slaves a few acres of land and helped them to fend for themselves, others were left to survive on their own. The whites were hurting just as much as now all the labor on the farm and home was their responsibility.
On the census however is a burst of activity. The occupations of the ‘50’s and ‘60’s were fading away. Farming would always be there but now there were also “farm hands”, many times former slaves who stayed with the family or hired themselves out to other farmers who had lost their slave labor. Black women worked hard too, they had been trained from their youth as slaves to work! Two categories appear for the first time – Domestic Servants and Washerwomen. Surprisingly, white families also put their young children to work as domestic servants. There were instances of children down to the age of 8 living with other families as domestic servants.
Women also got their wages in other ways; they knew they could work, this was proved during the war. Suddenly there are female school teachers for the first time. There were seamstresses, weavers, milliners and music teachers. Some taught art. The blacksmiths were reduced in number and now the railroad was king. Married men who were “bosses” at the railroad had their wives working too. Hotels were springing up, many centered near the railroad. Now there are maids, cooks and other employees to handle the ever-changing railroad people – both black and white. Taverns abounded in the same area and census takers now called them “saloons” for the first time.
Other classifications of employment began appearing – gardeners, hostelers (took care of horses among other duties), plant nurseries, bakers, bankers, bookkeepers, insurance agents … the county and the state was teeming with growth. People were coming from Ireland, England, southern states; Virginia was no longer the primary state of birth. Names appeared and by the next census, were gone.
Sit down sometime and really look at some of these old census reports. Instead of looking just for your family, look around at the neighborhood. Did you ancestor go to this doctor? Did he swap tales with the other railroad man? Did the wife shop at this store or have a particular shoemaker repair her shoes? Did your family visit with the family down the road from England? Did they go to church with a family on an adjoining farm? Did their daughter possibly walk to school with the boy down the road and fall in love?
Birth and death dates are important to the researcher. We hunt for marriage dates, burial locations and parents’ names. But sometimes it’s nice to look at the people they were, what they did for a living and perhaps some of their friends.