More Than One Way to Read a Census: Working on Census Transcription for AiA’s “Locating People in the Past” Project

In the past six months, I have been part of Archaeology in Annapolis’ (AiA) project “Locating People in the Past.” This innovative project takes existing historic U.S. census data and two historic maps to create new, spatial information about people living in Talbot County, Maryland in the second half of the 19th century. With the help of a grant from the Future of Information Alliance, AiA used GIS (Geographic Information Systems) to digitize the maps and census data, and combined them into an interactive, public, map.

Locating People in the Past image

How did we do it? Ben Skolnik, Beth Pruitt and Stefan Woehlke combined the 1860 U.S. Census for Talbot Co. with an 1858 map, and the 1880 U.S. Census with an 1877 map. The result is a map that shows roads, structures, property boundaries and land owners along with demographic information about the individuals, enslaved and free, living in each district in the county. One of the goals of this project was to be able to use this spatial data to better understand changes in the distribution of plantations and of the movement of enslaved and freed individuals from the height of the plantation economy (1860s) to after Emancipation (1880s).

Talbot Co 1860 Enslaved 1858 roads 1858 Dilworth Map

Example of 1858 map overtop of modern map depicting enslaved population from 1860 census. Districts in darker red indicate higher number of enslaved individuals. (


  • How did plantations change geographically over this period of time?
  • Which parts of the county had the highest populations of enslaved individuals in 1860 as opposed to 1880, and what could this mean for the archaeological record?

These questions don’t have easy answers but this project is a tool with which to begin to answer them.

My involvement with this project was small but crucial for its success; ensuring that the census data from 1860 and 1880 was completely transcribed into a digital format that could be used with GIS. In other words, typing up thousands of individual entries into an excel sheet so they can be used in a digital format. I learned a lot through the transcription process about knowing how to read the census: both literally reading the handwriting of different census enumerators as well as analyzing what the census information can tell us about that point in U.S. history. I gained a better understanding of how the historical records as well as the new spatial data can be used in historical archaeology projects.

I’ll start with the question “why does this matter?” It is important for two main reasons. First, it can aid genealogical research that is important to the community. AiA continues to work with people in and around Annapolis, MD whose ancestors are known to have been in the area for many generations. Descendants will be able to search the digitized data sets for individuals using the interactive map. What makes this different from other tools like is the ability to locate a person on the historic map, and then be able to compare it to a modern map. It also allows for data to be analyzed geographically and over time. In other words, ideally, we can look up a person based on the 1860 census, place them on the 1858 map, and identify how that historic data translates to our roads and buildings today. We must, however, keep in mind the limits of this data, since not every census name was matched with a name on the historic maps. Future projects of this kind will hopefully be able to increase the success rate of finding these matches. For the records that have been matched, we hope the map can fill gaps in information for living descendants.

Secondly, this project is important because it can enhance our understanding of where important archaeological sites might be as well as draw connections between the material culture and historic records at late 19th century sites. On a broader scale, this data can be used to better understand the changes that occurred after the Civil War. Transcribing hand-written census documents into a digital format like an excel sheet makes the information search-able and can be easily manipulated to see trends regarding occupations, illnesses, and race based on the sub-districts within Talbot County. For example, in transcribing the 1880 census for Talbot County I found that many black residents, while at that point free individuals, still held servant or farm laborer positions. I became interested not only in how the data changed from the 1860 to the 1880 census, but changes in how data was collected in those two census periods.

One of the major differences between the 1860 and 1880 censuses is the type of information recorded before and after emancipation. From 1860 to 1880, the U.S. Census changed in these ways:

  • Values of “real estate” and “personal estates” were no longer recorded on the schedule
  • Illnesses, disabilities and reading and writing literacy were recorded with more detail
  • All persons’ names were recorded and there was no need for a “Slave Schedule”
  • The birthplace of each person’s mother and father were added
1900 History of US Census snipit slave schedule

Report on the History of the US Census describing changes made to the 1880 Census with the omission of the Slave Schedule. (Wright-Hunt 1900)


My superficial analysis of these changes in the census show that after the American Civil War and the passing of the 13th Amendment, the US government no longer needed criteria for recording slaves and instead added criteria for tracking literacy, health and families. The 1860 census only recorded the names of free people. Enslaved individuals were recorded in aggregate with no personal identification.

Additionally, another important change to the 1880 Census was in its enumeration process. The government wanted to make the process faster and more accurate. They wanted the whole processed completed in two weeks, or 12 working days, rather than the 100 working days it took for the 1870 census to be completed. It was during the 1880 census period that a Superintendent of Census was appointed by the President under the Department of the Interior and one or two Supervisors were appointed in each state to advise on best practices for the district subdivisions. This meant there were more Census Supervisors than judicial marshals, which added “a higher degree of local knowledge” and a “closer and more direct supervision of the actual work of enumeration” (Wright-Hunt 1900). Congress was in agreement that a quicker and more detailed census of the population was worth the legislative and executive time and money spent.

Census 1880 snipit

1880 Census records showing common occupations. (1880 US Federal Census)

One of the challenges I encountered was learning how to read 19th century terms and handwriting. Many occupations were familiar, like Oysterman, Inn Keeper, or Farmer, but others like Milliner (ladies hat-maker), or Hod Carrier (brick and cement carriers) were less familiar. I also didn’t recognize some of the common illnesses for the time period. For example, “Childbed fever” came up as an illness a few times for mothers who had young children. I learned through an NPR story that Childbed fever was an illness affecting women who were exposed to germs and other infections during child birth. A Hungarian doctor, Ignaz Semmelweis, came to the conclusion that mothers who had their babies delivered by doctors who were also doing autopsies had a higher-rate of death by this illness than did mothers who had midwives (who did not perform autopsies). His discovery prompted his advocacy for hand-washing in hospitals, although he was unaware of what we know today as “germs.” It is possible that the mothers in the census who had childbed fever gave birth under similar situations which led to their illness.

In the process of digitizing these census records, I saw stories emerge from the text – both of the people recorded and of the enumerators doing the recording. I imagined what it was like for the census takers walking from home to home in the heat of June in Maryland. Did they sit at people’s tables and speak with the head of the house? Or did they draw attention from everyone in the household, like in this 1870 census depiction from the Library of Congress?

1870_census_med Library of Congress

Picture: 1870 Census drawing. Courtesy of Library of Congress.


I could see a distinct difference between each enumerator based on how completely and neatly the enumerators recorded information – understanding that they, too, were people and had different personalities that came through in their task of hand-recording the census.

The census enumerators in 1860 and 1880 were actively participating in recording their history – a snapshot of their country at a specific point in time. Today, archaeologists from the University of Maryland, are using this information to better understand the social, cultural and economic contexts of Talbot County in a postbellum America. The Locating People in the Past project set out to reveal gaps in archival information using geospatial analysis. But I believe that information about the process of data collection in the late 19th century was also revealing. The laws and protocols surrounding the census enumeration can be just as informative about how our government changed in the years after the Civil War. This concept can be applied to the archaeology we do today. Archaeology, too, requires a particular methodology in data collection which is just as important to understand as the data that we collect.

-Sarah Janesko, MAA Student, University of Maryland, College Park

  1. I have heard that archaeology in Annapolis is a partnership between department of anthropology at the University of Maryland resides in College Park and historic Annapolis foundation. Is that correct?
    But plantations is change geographically over this period of time is a remarkable thing.

    Sourav Basak
    Blogger, Entrepreneur, Thinker

    • Yes, we are indeed partnered with the Historic Annapolis Foundation! Over the past many years AiA has excavated numerous sites in Annapolis. In fact, it was our work there that led us to branch out. Our research at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater gives us a look at the rural areas around Annapolis that supplied the city with produce and other goods; people have long moved back and forth from city to county in the course of their lives, across the generations, or even daily. Our work at the Paca house in Annapolis brought us to the Founding Father’s other residence on the Eastern Shore, a plantation called Wye Hall. From there we have expanded to other sites on the Shore looking at African-American life. What ties all of this together is an attention to how people enforce and resist oppression. In this sense, it is impossible to separate what happened in towns and cities from what happened in plantations.

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