Complete Your Census Form: A Future Historian Will Thank You

Just a few days after a letter arrived announcing that a Federal Census form would soon follow – a oddly redundant gesture ranking right up there with one of those “I’m sending you an email” telephone calls – the Federal Census Form appeared in the mailbox, bearing the severe warning, “response is required by law” – an unnecessary threat in my case since I’m eager to complete the census form, and not solely for patriotic or fiscal reasons. My eagerness is egotistical: I want my name recorded for a future historian to find and ponder. Being a historian of the armchair variety myself, I’ve spent scores of hours devouring census records. Like maps and deeds, wills and court cases, census records are the factual skeleton supporting our assumptions and hypotheses, the underpinnings of multi-layered history

The Federal government’s decennial enumeration proffers a wealth of information that traces the growth of Audubon Park from the twenty-five people in the Audubon household in 1850 to the thousands living on the same acreage in 1920, but the numbers do not stop there. Article 1, Section 2 of the US Constitution requires a census every ten years, but does not stipulate how the census shall be conducted or what questions will be asked. Before 1850 the enumerator counted anyone other than the head of the household as a statistic by sex, age, literacy, and infirmity if any existed. From 1850 onward, the number of questions increased and the variety of information expanded so not only can we trace the increased population density in Audubon Park, we can form a picture of people who lived here.

In 1840, when the 6th Ward enumerator counted the Audubon household, less than two years after the family returned to the United States from abroad and less than two years before they moved to Minnie’s Land in northern Manhattan, enumerator Patrick Quin counted twelve people piled into a leased house on White Street: Audubon and Lucy, their sons and daughters-in-law, two granddaughters, and four female servants, one of them probably a nurse for the two infant girls. According to the 1840 supplementary questions, three of the women between 20 and 30 years of age could not read (that is, one of the servants could read).

Ten years later, the Audubon household had doubled and the census information expanded exponentially. That year, the enumerators began listing each household member’s name, age, sex, and place of birth, recording the occupation for each male older than 15, and noting anything applicable in a column for “deaf and dumb, blind, insane, idiotic, pauper or convict.” The census day in 1850 was June 1, but working house by house, recording information by hand, enumerator Thomas Jackson did not arrive at Minnie’s Land until August 1. Usually, the enumerator questioned the head of the household, but in the mid-1840s, Audubon had begun his descent into a “mental gloaming” and by August 1850, feeble and constantly supervised by a servant, he had only six months remaining in his long, illustrious life. Even so, Jackson counted Audubon as head of the household, recording the value of Minnie’s Land – then roughly 20 acres with a house, barns, and a cottage –at $50,000 and perpetuating Audubon’s self-invented biography, recorded his birthplace as Louisiana.

Jackson counted twenty-five people in Minnie’s Land that year: John and Lucy, their sons and daughters-in-law, eleven grandchildren, six female servants, a waiter, whose function was somewhere between butler and factotum, and George Philips and his wife, who occupied the farmer’s cottage. Twenty-five people on twenty acres of land, five of them younger than four years old, equates to about an acre of ground person – compared to the twelve stacked in a row house on White Street a decade earlier and the thousands occupying the same acreage today.

Twenty-five people in 1850 had more than quintupled in 1860 to one hundred and thirty-three, (the years of that decade also marking the name change from Minnie’s Land to Audubon Park). William Tone, the 1860 enumerator for Ward 12 District 3, began work on June 4 and did not complete his count until August 6. Though he did not specifically notate “Audubon Park” for residents, which households resided in the Park and which lived outside is quite clear from occupation, origin, and income. Those inside were mainly American-born merchants with combined incomes and property values ranging from $30,000 to $75,000. Henry Smythe, Wellington Clapp, George Blake Grinnell, and Charles Frask (who leased Lucy Audubon’s house) all kept coachmen as well as six or seven other servants. Those outside the Park were not property owners, rarely had servants (if so, only one), and included carpenters, coopers, painters (as well as apprentice painters), a shoemaker, a gardener, a “flowerist,” the caretaker of Trinity Cemetery, and – suggesting that the North River (as the Hudson was then known) was still a viable source of income – an oyster dealer. Many were immigrants, listing their places of birth in Germany, France, Prussia, Ireland, Scotland, and England.

At first glance, the 1860 census does not suggest the severe financial hardship the Audubons were suffering: Victor and John each owned a home valued at $15,000 and each had several servants attached to his household. Lucy, who leased her own house, a cost-cutting measure that allowed her to retain ownership of the house and a portion of the original farm in case the family’s financial condition ever improved, still claimed ownership and valued her real estate at $25,000. However, the “Value of Personal Estate” column completes the picture. While other Park residents claimed personal property valued anywhere from $30,000 to $50,000, Victor’s personal estate was $1,000, John’s, $1,500, and Lucy claimed nothing. In short, the Audubons were land-poor.

The 1860 census also offered a personal look at the Audubon family. Around 1857, as the result of a fall that injured his back, Victor became an invalid and remained in his bed for the remaining three years of his life, like his father, dying several months after the Federal enumeration. Lucy, his chief nurse, lived in Victor’s house for the duration. The row with his statistics (age 53, male, artist, born in Kentucky) also includes a startling piece of information in Column 14: the enumerator recorded Victor as “Intemperance (sic), Insane,” a snippet of information that raises more questions than it can answer. Who provided the census taker that information? Was Victor’s “intemperance” related to his injury, an over-use of alcohol or laudanum to ease the pain of his back injury? Or was his intemperance perhaps the cause of the fall and subsequent injury?

Enumerators were careful to mark “Audubon Park” as an official address for the remaining decades of the 19th Century, decades that demonstrate population stability within the Park despite growth all around it. Not only does the population density remained steady, so do the residents’ social standing (recorded in occupations and numbers of servants) and affluence (noted in real estate and personal property values). George Blake Grinnell is an excellent example. Despite an 1860 bankruptcy brought on by the collapse of the cotton trade at the beginning of the Civil War and a severe financial setback during the Panic of 1873, Grinnell’s recorded property values continued to climb as he amassed more and more acreage. By the time of his death in 1891, he was worth well over a million dollars. The 1860 and 1870 censuses even record the primary reason for his resilience in the face of financial disaster: in 1860 he was merchant, one of many New Yorker’s involved in the cotton trade; in 1870, he was a stock broker, dealing primarily in railroad stocks, at a time when vast fortunes came from building America’s railroad system and even greater ones from speculating on railroad stocks.

Although the count for the 1900 census was one hundred and thirty-two, only one person more than in 1860, the number was inflated by the Mother Superior and twenty-nine Sisters of the Annunciation who lived in a recently-built convent on the north east corner of Broadway and 155th Street. Although the convent was outside the Park’s “official” borders, the nuns used that address, just other families ringing the Park had long done. More telling of the approaching change, many of the familiar names from previous censuses – the Clapps, Jeromes, Fosters, Stones, and Benedicts were gone, replaced by an expanded Grinnell family that included grandchildren with surnames Page and Martin.

The 1910 Census told a completely new story. On the eastern side of Riverside Drive, Audubon Park had faded away beneath the first museums at Audubon Terrace and recently-constructed apartment buildings 156th and 157th Streets, both opened during the first decade of the 20th Century. The blocks west of Broadway between 155th and 158th Streets now encompassed an entire Enumeration District (number 1742) with an expanding population: three hundred eight-five people, many of them the first residents of Audubon Hall and Hispania Hall, though down below Riverside Drive’s retaining wall, several dozen people still lived in the houses the Audubons had built in the middle of the previous century, three to five families per house.

By 1920, with thousands of people counted in the Beaux Arts apartment buildings lining Riverside Drive, 156th and 157th Streets, a population density hundreds of times greater than those original twenty-five members of the Audubon household, the transformation was complete –or almost. The three original Audubon houses below the Drive’s retaining wall, neglected and decaying, still housed several dozen people. Another decade would pass before apartment buildings engulfed them as well, completing the transition from farmland to cityscape, a transition we can trace step by step using the Federal Census.

Beginning with the 2010 Census, the 23rd decennial enumeration since Federal counters fanned out across the United States in 1790, we all complete just ten short questions, no doubt a benefit for the Census Bureau’s budget, but a true loss for future historians and genealogists. Completing my form the other night, I was tempted to slip in some information about my place of birth (1860), whether I was “a soldier, sailor, or marine during the Civil War” (1890), and whether I have “attended school at any time since September, 1909” (1910), but held back, fearing my love affair with census records might qualify me for a derogatory assessment in the long-gone

(Check the US Census Bureau website for an overview of questions on the Federal Census through the years.)