The job of a census-taker in the nineteenth century must have been alternately dangerous and dull. Dangerous because the job entailed traveling alone by horse over roads that ranged from rudimentary to nonexistent through territory inhabited by wild animals and by Native Americans who understandably had a “There goes the neighborhood” view of white encroachment in order to ask questions of settlers who might not want to be grilled by some nosy stranger sent by “the guv’mint.” Dull because the job entailed entering on endless census forms an endless string of words, numbers, letters, hash marks, and checkmarks as a census-taker noted endless surnames, first names, heads of household, ages, races, genders, places of birth, occupations, values of real estate, etc.
But now and then a census-taker’s knock on a door summoned forth someone whose life could not be reduced to the rows and columns of a census form.
Granted, Sam Houston (photo from Wikipedia) probably dispatched an aide to answer the census-taker’s knock on the door of the governor’s mansion in Austin in 1860, but just imagine if Houston had answered the door himself:
“Good day, sir. I’m S. J. Wood, Travis County assistant marshal for the federal census of 1860. I’d like to ask you a few questions about the members of this household.”
“Your first name, please?” [prepares to fill in census form.]
“Samuel. Just ‘Sam’ will do.”
“Profession, occupation, or trade?”
“Let’s see. I have been a lawyer, soldier, Tennessee congressman, Tennessee governor, major general of the Texas army, first and third president of the Republic of Texas, Texas senator, Texas governor . . .”
“I think I’m gonna need a bigger form.”
This image of the Texas governor’s mansion is from 1875. The Greek revival-style mansion, completed in 1856, had six thousand square feet of floor space in eleven rooms—not one of them a bathroom.
The 1860 census form that includes the governor’s household appears to be dated August 13. If so, on the previous day Temple Lea Houston, Sam Houston’s final child, had become the first child to be born in the governor’s mansion. (Photo from Texas State Preservation Board.)
Other occupations listed on the census form with the governor’s household include farmer, lawyer, secretary of state, governess, boot maker, laborer, clerk. The terms spinster, wife and widow also appear under “occupation.” Was Bott the thirty-year-old “spinster” a female spinner of thread or a single woman who was past the usual age for marriage? Elsewhere in the census I found females as young as twenty-three and even sixteen listed as “spinster.”
The $50,000 in real estate that Sam Houston listed in the census would be $1.2 million today.
Above the Houston household entry, Eber Worthington Cave, in addition to being Texas secretary of state, was a newspaper editor and an early promoter of the Houston Ship Channel.
The two census forms preceding the form that includes the Houston household are dominated by farmers. On early census forms households who were listed in succession were not necessarily neighbors, but this bird’s-eye-view map shows that even in 1873 Austin still had open land for farming.
This detail of that 1873 map shows the 1856 governor’s mansion (labeled 5) below and to the left of the Capitol (labeled 1).
The Capitol in 1873. The current Capitol was opened to the public on San Jacinto Day, April 21, 1888. Sam’s son Temple delivered the “dedication oration,” accepting the new building on behalf of the people of Texas.
Here are some other names entered by census-takers in the nineteenth century (Tarrant County’s first census in 1850 is the only one that included the military Fort Worth):