Here in the United States, the Federal government usually does a census every 10 years. The first US Federal Census was taken in 1790, when the population of the United States was around 3 million people. The most recent US Federal Census took place in 2010, with a population now over 308 million people. Wow! From 1790 until 1850 the US Federal Census listed only the Head of Household, and the number of people in his or her home. Starting in 1850 all members of the household were included, and over the years additional categories have been added. Right now I’m going to share with you the US Federal Census records that we have for our ancestor, Thomas Copeland (a.k.a. “Tom”). Tom Copeland is the father of Dorothy, Dewey, Delmer, William Delvie, and Donna Copeland. Many of you are descended from one of these siblings. While these records do not comprise the entirety of the information we have about Tom Copeland, they do help us to tell a little about the course of events in his life — a sort of mini-biography based on snapshots taken every 10 years.
Tom was born in 1876, so the first time he appears is on the 1880 US Federal Census for Cotton Hill, Dunklin County, Missouri. From this record we learn that Tom is four years old and was born in Missouri. The names of his parents (he is listed as “son”) are “G.T” and “Sarah”, and he has a sister named “M.J.” We also learn that his father was born in Illinois and his mother in Missouri, which matches the birthplaces of the parents listed for him on this census record. You can click on each image to open a larger version in a new browser window. Tom and his family are highlighted.
There are no US Federal Census records for 1890 due to a fire that destroyed almost all of them in 1921. So, the next census record we have available for Tom Copeland is the 1900 US Federal Census. Now Tom is living in Independence Township, Dunklin County, Missouri. He is married to Clara Bunting, and living with her parents Phineas and Elizabeth (Skinner) Bunting. From this record we learn that Tom is the “son-in-law” of Phineas Bunting, that he was born in “Apr 1876”. We also learn that he is 24 years old, is married, and has been married for one year. Living with Tom and Clara is their newborn daughter, Imogene. [Note: this marriage is corroborated by their marriage record.]
The next Federal Census year is 1910, in which we find Tom Copeland still living in Independence, Dunklin County, Missouri, working as a “hired man” at the home of John and Louisa Pool. He is listed as being 34 years old, and “widowed,” although this is a bit inaccurate because we know that Tom’s wife, Clara, was still alive in 1910, though sadly institutionalized. The census also notes that he is able to read and write (good for you, Tom!) and that he and both of his parents were born in Missouri. The interesting thing about census records is that it wasn’t until 1940 that enumerators noted who was providing the information to the census-taker. So, one will often find discrepancies in dates and places of birth, and even names, between one census and another — this can be attributed to many causes, but the number one reason is probably that the person supplying the information was not a member of the family (they could have been a neighbor, or a visitor).
Zoom ahead 10 years and we find our Tom living in Neal, Mississippi County, Arkansas. Wait a minute, how did he get there? This is a question that census records can’t answer. People move, usually to better their situation. We could speculate that Tom left Dunklin County to pursue an opportunity that he couldn’t refuse, whatever that might have been. From the 1920 US Federal Census, we learn that Tom Copeland has married again, and his wife’s name is “Myrtle M” (we know this is Myrtle Crider from other sources). He also has a daughter named “Dartha B” (Dorothy), age 8; and a son “Othar D” (Dewey Otho), age 6. The Census indicates that Tom is 49 years old, owns his home, and is a farm laborer. His place of birth is listed as Missouri, his father’s as Illinois, and his mother’s as Missouri.
Another ten years passes for Tom and the 1930 US Federal Census indicates that he is still living in Neal, Mississippi, Arkansas. He is still married to Myrtle, and now has four children: “Dorthy” (Dorothy), age 18; Dewey, age 16; “Delvie” (William Delvie, a.k.a. “Bill”), age 6; and “Donnie” (Donna), age 3 months. This census record indicates that Tom is 53 years old, born in Missouri, and both of his parents were born in Illinois. He lives on a farm and works as a “Farmer” (go figure!).
Our final census record for Tom is the 1940 US Federal Census. According to this record, Tom is once again living in Dunklin County, this time in the town of Clay. He is still married to Myrtle, and the census indicates that she is the one who has supplied the information about her family to the enumerator. That doesn’t necessarily mean that everything is accurate, but there is a better chance of accuracy. Tom is now 62 years old (born in Missouri), and working as a “Laborer” in “Road Construction.” His highest level of education completed was three years of school (or 3rd grade?). He was living in the “Same House” five years prior (1 Apr 1935) so he must have moved from Neal, Arkansas, back to Dunklin County sometime between 1930 and 1935. He still has two children living with him, “Delvie” (William Delvie a.k.a. “Bill”), age 15; and “Donnie” (Donna), age 12.
We know from other sources that Tom Copeland died in 1948, so he wouldn’t have appeared on the 1950 US Federal Census even if we had access to it (we’ll have to wait until 2022 for it to be released to the public). I hope you enjoyed my mini-biography of Tom Copeland, which is the result of close analysis of the six US Federal Census records we have for him. Though a brief glimpse every ten years tells us very little about a person’s life, it gives us just enough to keep us interested and coming back for more.