Wednesday, January 18, 2012

St Croix Records: The Census

1841-Fisher St 45 (Medium)
1841 Census for 45 Fisher St
One of the most commonly used records for the genealogist is the census.  In the US, they started keeping a federal census in 1790, but the earliest censuses only recorded heads of households and some statistics for the numbers of people in various age groups in the house.  In 1850 the US census started recording the names of each person.  In this, at least, the Danish West indies is a little bit ahead of the US.  The Danish government took censuses from as early as 1835, listing all members of each household.  Many of these census documents survive.

The DWI took censuses at somewhat irregular intervals before regularizing them in the late 19th century.  Censuses exist for 1835, 1841, 1846, 1850, 1855, 1857, 1860,1870, 1880, 1890, 1901, and 1911.  That’s quite a collection!  Each of these collections is housed mostly in the Danish Archives in Copenhagen, with some pages at NARA in College Park, MD.  The LDS church has microfilmed the censuses and makes them available for viewing either at their Salt Lake City Family History Library or through their Family History Centers worldwide.  If you are lucky enough to be searching for St Croix records, in particular, the censuses have been indexed by the Virgin Islands Social History Association (VISHA).  The indexes are available at the Dansk Demografisk Database, at the VISHA website, and at (for a fee).  Ancestry allows downloading of images of the pages, which is often very desirable.  In this post, I will be discussing the St Croix census, but the St Thomas and St John census documents are identical.
A censuses was taken for each dwelling, with a new sheet for each address.  Sometimes, a dwelling housed several households, but they were all entered on a single page (or two if needed).  Typically, household members were indicated by some notation by the enumerator dividing the list according to household.

The census recorded just some basic information, and not all fields were dutifully filled out, but the information provided is invaluable. Of particular note, which surprised me, was that even in the earliest census forms (like the 1841 census pictured above), is that the form is in English.  Since the language of government was Danish, that was a surprise.  Further, the enumerator usually recorded information in English, supporting the fact that English was the de-facto language of the islands.

The 1841 & 1846 censuses recorded information for each residence and person. For each residence, it recorded the address and the owner. It recorded the following information for each person in the residence:
  • Names of all Free Persons living in the House, without exception
  • Gender
  • Where born
  • Age, the running year included
  • Religion and when Baptized
  • Married, unmarried, Widower, or Widow
  • Each Person’s Title, Office, situation in the Family, or what they live by.
  • Possessing Burgherbriefs and from what date
  • In which Militia Corps doing duty and in what capacity
1850-Fisher St 45 (Medium)
1850 Census for 45 Fisher St
The earliest censuses, before 1848 were divided into two schedules: free and unfree.  The picture above is from the free schedule.  The Free schedule is schedule 1 and the unfree is schedule 2 (upper left corner).  The image is of a Town form, the rural forms are identical except it refers to Estates rather than Houses and asks for the Name of the Estate and the address by Quarter and Number.  Otherwise the questions are identical.  An Estate was treated as a single residence, so they spanned multiple pages.

1855-Fisher St 45 (Medium)
1855 Census for 45 Fisher St

By 1850, slavery had been abolished, so the free and unfree designations were lost and they simply asked for “Names of all persons”.  The questions were similar, except the questions about Burgherbriefs (a form of business license for foreign born) and Militia were dropped, but they did ask if the person was “infected with the leprosy”.  They also included a column to indicate households by numbering them.

The 1855 census no longer asked about baptism, but still included “Religion or the Church that the person attends.”  It expanded on the leprosy question by asking for “Observations, such as if a person is afflicted with blindness, idiocy, leprosy, elephantitis, or concerning the person’s temporary absentee from the Island”

1890-Strand St 23 (Medium)
1890 Census for 23 Strand St
I can only assume that the government was happy with form, as it remained unchanged from 1855 through the 1880 census.

They changed the form again for the 1890 census, but again the changes were minor.  They added a column entitled “If not born in the Danish West India Islands, year of settlement there”.  They changed the language of the age question to “Age, the completed year”. The rest remained the same.

1901-Strand St. 23 A (Medium)
1901 Census for 23 Strand St
The DWI government ushered in the 20th century with a redesigned and expanded census form for the 1901 census, although the information was still much the same.  In earlier censuses the “occupation” column asked for either an occupation or a state within the family.  This was typically used to list unemployed children or housewives.  In the 1901 census, they explicitly ask for both.  They also split the Observations column to separate the conditions from the absence from the island and allowed the enumerator to add any remarks.  They seldom did.

1911-Strand St 23 A-p1 (Medium)
1911 Census-Page 1
1911-Strand St 23 A-p2 (Medium)
1911 Census-Page 2-23 Strand St
The last DWI census was held in 1911 and the form was further expanded to cover two pages.  The first page recorded the effective census date (February 1, 1911), the address, and the homeowner, along with the instructions for the enumerator on how the census was to be carried out.

The second page held the personal information and was significantly longer than previous censuses, to permit larger residences to record all of their people.  Otherwise the information was identical to that from 1901. This was the last census conducted in the DWI since the islands were sold before the next census was to occur, presumably in 1921.

Although there is not a lot of information recorded on the censuses, they are extremely valuable in island research.  Addresses from the census can point the way to finding tax records and the religion can help locate church records, which served as the island’s vital records for many years.  Also, since early censuses were conducted more frequently than every 10 years, they give much better resolution to family moves and evolution in the 1840-1860 timeframe, which has been quite valuable for me.  Finally, the 1890 census wasn’t destroyed like the US census, so we don’t have the problem of the missing years!

As I said, only the St Croix census has been indexed, but the St Thomas and St John censuses are available on microfilm. VISHA is working on indexing them and hopefully they will be available before long.

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