Wednesday , May 29 2024
Family history can get interesting with the help of the U.S. Census.

Hunting Humans

I was an enumerator for the United States Census Bureau in 1990 and 2000. I was one of the many who knocked on doors to get forms filled out that hadn’t already been returned. It was the most fascinating job I’ve ever had. I woke up every morning excited about getting to work. It wasn’t easy work some days. Unlike the gated communities I enumerated in 1990, rural areas were my domain in 2000 – some of them quite remote. Cell phone signals were iffy but mine worked just often enough to get me out of a bind or two. I’d had a few unruly types threaten to shoot me. One guy became irate and was hauled away. He wouldn’t answer his door even though I knew he was home. One afternoon I stood there on his porch and called him. For some reason he answered his phone. That’s when I asked him to please come to his door and fill out the form. He didn’t just come to the door – he came through it. I hotfooted it back to my truck while calling for help. I thanked the heavens that day for aerobics class, four-wheel drive, and working locks.

Nonetheless, at the end of the season I felt disappointed because it was all over for another 10 years. There weren’t just those who refused to fill out their forms; there were also those who didn’t understand how or why. I enjoyed a goodly amount of lemonade, fresh baked cookies, and town gossip as I tutored along.

At the end of training for the Census, I’d been sworn to keep everything I would learn to myself for 72 years. I understood why, but it really sunk in after I started documenting my family’s history through releases of the U. S. Census, the most recent being the 1930 Census. With my mother’s passing in 1999, I became the oldest female in her line. At the ripe old age of 37, it fell to me to ensure the safety and welfare of all pertinent information, but it wasn’t until I was in my 40s that I became the least bit interested in documenting all the information I’d been given. Little did I know how much of it simply could not be documented. It wasn’t an issue of existing documents. It was an issue of stories that weren’t quite in keeping with what had actually happened.

As excited as I had been on my first day of enumerating, I was completely blown away when I set eyes on my first Census form from 1930. There it was, in black and white, right there on my monitor: my grandfather Frank Gulick, my grandmother Susan, and my three uncles. My father wouldn’t be born for another eight years. I was transported back into time – specifically 1930. I could almost smell the paper and feel the pen scratches and ink welts of a time in which I’d not lived.

Later I would find people in my family whom I’d never met. I would find others whom I’d heard so much about. And in the true spirit of keeping personal information a secret, but only for 72 years, I found out where my long lost great-aunt Odessa had really gone to when she became pregnant – and it wasn’t with “that boy” as I’d been told. It was with “that man.” That man was my great-aunt’s father, James Lambert. He was my great-grandfather, my mother’s grandfather, and my great-grandmother’s ex-husband.

I would come to discover, and it was later confirmed, that my great-aunt hadn’t been pregnant at all. She just couldn’t stand her mother, Effie Mae (nee Felker), any more, so she left and changed her name. Incorrectly listed (or incorrectly told to the enumerator) as James’ stepdaughter, Odessa was James’ daughter. My great-grandfather had moved to a different state and took his oldest daughter with him. He remarried and had several more children. My great-grandmother would also remarry – three times.

Incidentally, my great-grandmother was a horrid woman. I still question the motivation of a man who spirits away his eldest daughter (leaving sons and a younger daughter behind), but if great-grandma was as mean at 25 as she was at 75, I would have bid my farewells, too. The younger daughter, my grandmother, Mildred, who was no kind person herself, once told me her grandmother was “a witch.” Try passing genealogy off at an Anger Management Class and see how far it flies. Er, not that I would know.

It has surprised me how often seemingly morally incorrect circumstances play out time and again, not only in my own family tree, but in others’ as well. And here I’d been told how upstanding people used to be. Outstanding hide-n-seek on a national scale, that’s all that was. I suspect the number of divorces, restless teenagers, and unplanned pregnancies hasn’t raised that much over the last century – it’s the knowledge of it.

Something that has actually declined is the infant mortality rate and the number of deaths from childbirth. Way back when was not a good time for women and children. It helped if you made it through your teens, and it helped if you were male, but a heart-wrenching perusal of the Slave Schedules reveals a bad time for everyone not related to the owner – and claimed by him. Sure we all know this, but when you see it in official documentation, it takes on a whole new depth and meaning.

My great-great-grandfather, John Jackson Gulick, was a physician who lost three wives to childbirth. The first died birthing her ninth child at age 34. The second died along with her first child at age 28. The third, my great-great-grandmother, Lea, died at age 44 giving birth to her fourth child.

There is little record of stillbirths and miscarriages as the Mortality Schedules were usually reserved for live births, so it isn’t known how many pregnancies actually occurred. (I was told of many stillbirths and miscarriages on my mother’s side. This, even though all the women lived long lives and had sizeable broods.)

The family tells me that after Lea’s death, John gave up medicine and went into farming, and the Census reflects this. He’d decided if he couldn’t keep his wives alive, then he should find another way to make a living.

John doesn’t appear to have had sex so very often – with his wife anyway, but c’mon. You’d think a physician with two deceased wives would’ve figured out what was going on and would’ve stopped it and/or found alternative means to meet the need (and who’s to say he didn’t). I guess deductive reasoning, even among the educated, was in short supply in those days. I fear to think he had little regard for women in general. No wonder so many mothers cried at weddings – they were sending their daughters off to die.

As nitty as some of the gritty was, there were also quite a few success stories. A candidate for the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution), my membership and that of my children will be well substantiated by all my research and the ancestors who fought in the Revolutionary War. At least as far back as the 1850 U.S. Census and other, much older records in existence show, it’s all documented. I’m happy to have gotten as far as I have, but goodness knows, there is much more hunting to do.

As it is, I now know almost every Gulick in the United States (and many others) came from just one couple, Hendrick Van Gulick and Geertruyt Jochem Willekens, who settled in the New World in the mid-1600s. That’s remarkable to me.

If only they knew.

(Note: There is no 1890 Census image for this article. Almost all of the 1890 Census was destroyed in a fire.)

About Diana Hartman

Diana is a USMC (ret.) spouse, mother of three and a Wichita, Kansas native. She is back in the United States after 10 years in Germany. She is a contributing author to Holiday Writes. She hates liver & motivational speakers. She loves science & naps.

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