“Name?” “Houston, Sam” “Occupation?” “Legend, Living”

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.

sam alone census celebritiesBut 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.

Sam mug

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.”

“Very well.”

“Your first name, please?” [prepares to fill in census form.]

“Samuel. Just ‘Sam’ will do.”

“Surname?”

“Houston.”

“Age?”

“Sixty-seven.”

“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.”

mansion 1875This 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.

houston mug

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.)

census sam full sheetOther 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.

census Old_map-Austin-1873-smThe 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.

1873 map-AustinThis detail of that 1873 map shows the 1856 governor’s mansion (labeled 5) below and to the left of the Capitol (labeled 1).

capitol 1873The 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.

Sam Houston spoke in Birdville in 1857 and in Fort Worth in 1859. Son Temple Houston practiced law in Fort Worth in 1891-1892.

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):

census celebrities

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6 Responses to “Name?” “Houston, Sam” “Occupation?” “Legend, Living”

  1. Sally Campbell & Ike renfield says:

    When my husband and I worked for the 1980 census we didn’t have such encounters with fame, but it was still interesting. One of Tom’s areas as a door to door enumerator was the near south of downtown, so he interviewed Carrie McFarland’s caretaker–she had died just a year or two prior so he was still living at the house and looking after it. He also interviewed nuns at a small convent in that area. Alas, the only name I can drop is Verne Lundquist–I worked in the clerical offices so I processed his form. I strongly recommend the census as an interesting temporary job.

    • hometown says:

      Even today, going door to door to ask questions of total strangers just has to be a memorable job. No doubt memorable is not the first adjective that some census-takers would use.

  2. Steve A says:

    My great grandfather was a census taker way back when.

    • hometown says:

      I’ll bet your great-grandfather and other census-takers could tell some stories. Even into this century the job has been a challenge at times.

  3. Kris Savage says:

    I love this! I could so easily get lost just reading any given page of the Census! All those people… little clues to the lives they lived! (In fact, I do… just got lost in them again yesterday.) The maps of Austin are also especially interesting… I can just imagine living there back then!

    • hometown says:

      Thanks, Kris. From time to time I will post more samplings of my tiptoeing through the censuses.

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