Who’s Counting?

I am right on the verge of completing my manuscript for submission to the publisher, but I had to stop because something is bothering me and I need to “write it out”. That process describes quite a few of my blog posts, actually. Last week the Phillips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum posted some pages of the 1810 census for Salem on Instagram, illustrating very well the segregated columns of the census-taker, and the less-detailed entries of African-American households. The post pointed out that census records were “key” for conducting #BlackHistoryResearch and also included a tag for #genealogy. At first impression I was glad to see this post: Salem records for African-American history are limited and largely unavailable to the general public (with the great exception of the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society records which are also held by the Phillips, and have been digitized by the Congregational Library) so anything newly revealed is great! But then I started to get annoyed: this is serious business, and the Phillips holds so much of Salem’s history, can’t we have more than an Instagram post? I think I’m speaking not only for myself but for many educators when I express my deep appreciation for the digital resources that many institutions have provided during this pandemic, actually facilitating, or even enabling, us to do our jobs. I have been very dependent on the digital resources and modules of the Newberry Library and the British Library, in particular, but it’s not just those large and well-endowed institutions that have stepped up, much smaller, local institutions have as well: the very day the Phillips posted its census pages, I checked out a great an amazing source-based digital exhibition created by King’s Chapel in Boston for Black History Month and Historic Beverly’s Set at Liberty exhibition has been up for a year. So these three census pages, as interesting and important as they are, did not really satisfy greedy me (but it is always thrilling to see John Remond’s name, and the size of his household in 1810).

The more I thought about this post, the more concerned I became, and it isn’t just because I think the Phillips should be stepping up its education game. I realized that there was an issue with the census itself, and the issue is: the National Archives doesn’t think that a census survey for Salem in 1810 exists. The people whose names you see above, both black and white, are not “represented” beyond the walls of the Phillips Library in Rowley. The National Archives has digitized its census records (Record Group 29: Records of the Bureau of the Census, 1790-2007) in partnership with Ancestry, FamilySearch, and other genealogical sites, and if you are a subscriber you can search by state, county, and township: I did so and could not find any Salem data for 1810. Maybe it’s just me: I really am a terrible genealogist. Perhaps those of you out there looking for your ancestors living in Salem in 1810 have had better luck. Let me know! When we were trying to stop the relocation of the Phillips Library to Rowley a few years ago, I though it was the public records that would keep it in Salem: I made lists of all their city and state records and sent them to influential people with high hopes. But I never thought that the Library might be the sole repository of federal records, so this surprised me, and of course, now I’m wondering what else is in there.

Update: I wanted to add an update because there is a lot of interest in this census! It does look like the Phillips might have the only copy, although Heather Wilkinson Rojo, genealogist extraordinaire of Nutfield Genealogy, found a microfilm reference at the National Archives (M252-18) but it is certainly not digitized. I notified Dan Lipcan, the head librarian and Pingree Director of the Library, and he is on the case.


4 responses to “Who’s Counting?

  • Isabella Jancourtz

    Donna, thank you so much for this post. I couldn’t agree with you more about the Phillips Library, and continue to regard its move from Salem to Rowley as a travesty, and an absolute betrayal of the intent of the donors.

    Years ago I did some research there on the family of my late husband, Samuel Dacre Bush IV. It was a lovely place, which should have been maintained and preserved, along with its wonderful contents.

    I’m thrilled to hear you’ve almost completed your manuscript, and look forward to reading the book!

    • daseger

      Thank you, Isabella! I still feel that way too but keep trying to move on as they say, as the Library seems ensconced up there. I just don’t think public records, in particular, should be inaccessible.

  • John Grimes

    Hi Donna – I’ve been doing genealogical research for ~40 years, and never noted that the 1810 census data for Salem was absent from the digitized versions, but you could be correct (I just did a few random searches and didn’t come up with anything, which is hardly definitive but makes me curious). If so, you’ve made an extraordinary discovery. Would that someone would find some originals of the 1890 census. But the continued sputtering about the Phillips Library is getting old, and rather beside the point here, don’t you think? (Besides, there is an alternative point of view; having worked with the Phillips collections in storage, I give prayers of thanks every day that they are in a new facility.) Should there be more digitized content from those collections? Of course. (The complaint that there isn’t enough digital content from the PEM archives seems ironic to me, given that when I set that out as a goal in 2003 – I was in charge of the library then – the academic community essentially laughed in my face – there’s an article in the Journal of Higher Education that I would refer you to – I don’t have the reference handy). All that aside, this discovery – if valid – gives you an opportunity to reach out to the museum, the National Archives, and the LDS genealogy library to broker a conversation about digitizing unique collections (starting with original federal records would be politically strong). I can also tell you that in terms of genealogical research, you/the public has no idea of the library’s unpublished/undigitized holdings, which are extraordinary. I would be very surprised if external funding and manpower could not be brought to bear on at least some of these holdings – especially now that a new facility would make the effort easier. You could even champion this effort, but it would – one would suppose – require putting your pet PEM peeves on the back burner. My contacts are a little dated now, but I would be happy to lend some of my effort to help.

    • daseger

      Thank you, John. Hope you are well. I really didn’t want to “sputter” about the Phillips today either, but when it comes to public records, I think institutions have responsibilities. And I think that institutions that claim to be resources for the community should be resources for the community. My perspective is that of a local resident, an historian, and an educator, and that’s how I respond and interact here, in this particular forum. So all my pet peeves are going to surface, believe me! You’d best move on unless more sputterings surface.

      That said, I’m conversing with a couple of genealogists who are far better at those records than I, and we’re looking, and once we figure out what’s what I will post an update. I will certainly contact the Phillips and NARA once I’ve followed all leads. I just want that record to become more accessible, as several people have asked me about it over the years.

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