Looking Back: Genealogy and booby traps

In 1790 the first decennial United States federal census had its beginnings with a simple purpose – to count people. The main objective was to determine the number of representatives to Congress from each state.

The framers of the Constitution did not have genealogy in mind when they called for the enumeration of residents of this new country.  However, despite its original purpose the census has become an important tool for those doing family research.  When the National Archives became the repository for the census records and released the information contained in them to the public in 1952, one of the qualifications was: “After the lapse of seventy-two years from the enumeration date of a decennial census, the National Archives and Records Services may disclose information contained in these records for use in legitimate historical, genealogical or other worth-while research. . .”  This decision by our government has become a gold mine for all historians and genealogists.

With the recent wave of family search documentaries showing up on TV, if you haven’t already been caught by the genealogy bug, perhaps you are now thinking about it.  Probably the first repository you will investigate will be our federal census records.

If you are new to the field of genealogy, be warned – there are a lot of hazards just waiting for you. Some research providers on the Internet seem to advertise that there is a clear path all laid out and waiting just for you.  Not, so.  The path has a lot of curves and holes in it, and if you are not careful you could very easily fall into one of those holes.

Being human, we all make mistakes, and when you start your tour through the history of your family you are going to run across many of those.  Even our federal government (very innocently) is not above placing booby traps along the road.  The indexing to the federal decennial census at the National Archives (NARA) looks so professional, it must be correct.  Don’t believe it!  Ancestry.com believed, and fell right into the trap. This appears obvious in its index of the 1860 federal census for Washington Territory.

If your ancestors lived in the Puget Sound area when Washington was still a territory, this will be of particular interest to you.  Otherwise, it is just an example of what kind of erroneous information seems to be just waiting to snag someone who is not versed in general history. Good advice to remember – if you are looking for your ancestors in a particular place do learn the history of that area before you even start.

Following is a good example of a pitfall.  Let’s say that you are looking for your gr-gr-grandfather David C. Forbes.  You know he was born in Scotland about 1831.  You know he came to America when he was two years old, and you heard he headed out west to Washington Territory about 1853. Let’s check Ancestry’s indexing of the 1860 United States federal census for Washington to see if he was actually living in Washington Territory at that time.  That was sure easy – immediately his listing pops up.

The indexing is very clear:  David C. Forbes, age 28, born in Scotland, his home in 1860 was Snohomish County, Washington; the post office of the town near his home was Arkada. Listed with Gr-Gr-Grandpa Forbes is his 18 year-old wife Almira E. Forbes and daughter Nancy E. Forbes, just one year old. Then click on the actual image of the census record which shows the enumeration was dated July 21, 1860.  This record shows that David was a farmer, his wife Almira was born in Illinois, and one-year-old daughter Nancy was born in Washington Territory.

Good information to add to your family tree. You just know it has to be correct – after all, the original data came from the 1860 U.S. census population schedule, NARA microfilm publication M653, 1438 rolls, Washington, D.C.; National Archives and Records Administration. When you take a look at the 1860 NARA list of counties, you will find they are all listed – 18 counties at that time.  The first one is Island County and Snohomish County is number 13 on the list.

Wait just a minute! In 1860, there was no Snohomish County in Washington Territory. Snohomish County was established the following year – January 14, 1861. In 1860, the people who lived on the mainland of what became our Snohomish County were residents of Island County. And, that brings up another story about weird happenings. More on that later.

So, where did David C. Forbes actually reside? Take a close look at the original image. The county shown is Sawamish County, Washington Territory, not Snohomish County. Okay, so where is Sawamish County? And, where is the town of Arkada?

County of Sawamish 1860 Federal Census, Sawamish CountyHere is a little history of our state learned in school – that is if you attended school in Washington State.  Sawamish County was created from Thurston County on March 13, 1854. On January 8, 1864, Sawamish County was renamed Mason County – and the name Sawamish just faded away.

Washington Territory was carved out of Oregon Territory on March 2, 1853. At that time there were only eight counties: Clark, King, Island, Jefferson, Lewis, Pacific, Pierce and Thurston.

David Forbes filed a Donation Land Claim for 160 acres on September 15, 1855 in what later became Mason County. It was his application for this claim of land which confirmed the information he was born in Scotland and came to the U.S. at the age of two. David also provided the information that he arrived in Washington Territory September 9, 1853. This makes David C. Forbes a true pioneer – settling here only a few months after Washington Territory was formed.

In 1856 at the age 25, David Forbes served in the Indian War in the 2nd Regiment as a train guard– his residence at that time was given as Sawamish County.

David and Almira had several more children. They eventually went to live in Olympia and he and his family were listed in the 1870 and 1880 census records there. David died in 1880, a few days after the 1880 census was enumerated, and his wife Almira died in 1883. They are buried next to each other at Odd Fellows Memorial Park in Tumwater, Thurston County, Washington. David spent his lifetime pretty much in the same locality where he settled first. He probably never set foot in Snohomish County. Incidentally, the town of Arkada in Sawamish/Mason County where David and Almira received their mail in 1860 is now known as Arcadia and it is located in Mason County.

The people who post the US GenWeb Archives did correct the error when they published a transcription of the 1860 U.S. federal census for Sawamish County on its website.

Now, for information on the other strange happening, let’s return to 1860 and the people who did live on the mainland of Island County – the area we know today as Snohomish County. There was a lot of political feuding going on between the island and the mainland residents. Perhaps this was the reason, or maybe they just got lost among all the big trees, but whatever happened, the residents of the mainland were left completely out of the 1860 federal census for Washington Territory. So, if you had ancestors living on the mainland of Island County in 1860, you are out of luck in finding a listing for them as they were omitted from the federal census that year.

However, it does help that in 1862, Sheriff Salem Woods conducted a census which included 44 males of the newly established Snohomish County. Most were shown living in Mukilteo, Snohomish and the Tulalip Indian Reservation. Women and the native people were not included in this census.

As a genealogist myself, I would like to recommend that a very good source of county history timelines is Everton Publishers book The Handybook for Genealogists.  Yes, they even recognize the late Sawamish County.

In my next column there will be a short article on another strange happening for Snohomish County. This time it takes place during the 1870 federal census enumeration.  Sometimes it does seem as if the people of Snohomish County in early times were stepchildren, and either ignored or picked on.

– By Betty Lou Gaeng

A long-time resident of South Snohomish County, Betty Lou Gaeng is a genealogist, historian, researcher and writer who is active in volunteer work for Lynnwood’s Heritage Park Partners Advisory Committee and the Alderwood Manor Heritage Association at Heritage Park. She is also a member of the League of Snohomish County Heritage Organizations (LOSCHO) and the South County Historical Society and Museum.  Gaeng is the author of two books: “Etched in Stone,” which is the history of the Edmonds Museum memorial monument, and “Chirouse” about a Catholic missionary priest who came from France to Washington Territory in 1847 and became a father figure and friend to the Puget Sound area’s Native people.

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