It might surprise some people to know that the taking of a census in this country is a requirement of the U. S. Constitution. Article 1/Section 2 requires a counting of the population every ten years as a basis for determining each state’s representation in Congress. It’s been done since 1790, just a year after the inauguration of George Washington as first President of the United States. It was organized then by Thomas Jefferson who was the first Secretary of State and covered the 13 states, former colonies plus the districts of Kentucky, Maine, and Vermont, which were on the way to becoming states but hadn’t yet been admitted. Last on the list for this count was the then-territory of Tennessee which was still a wild and wooly place with different factions trying to make it into more than one state. They got their stuff sorted out and it was admitted to the Union in 1796. Georgia, of course, was one of the original 13.
In those days, the physical challenges of counting all the population were enormous because, while some people lived in towns, the vast majority were farmers who lived at a distance from those towns and often isolated from their neighbors. I try to imagine what it must have been like for the enumerators (counters) to set out on horseback or by buggy to the farthest reaches of their districts to find and count inhabitants. The census was taken in the summer then, so I’m sure that they were sometimes terribly hot and uncomfortable, but they peri\sisted. Some of the enumerators were barely literate and they often misspelled names or misheard information so that they got an age or a name wrong, but I am amazed at the dedication and determination they showed. They missed very few people – no matter how close to the back or beyond they lived.
A brief aside: Everyone who does family history research has a story to tell about trying to find someone whose name was mangled by a census taker in the long-ago days of hand-written censuses . My own three-year saga was looking for a great uncle who I knew lived in deep southwest Georgia at the turn of the 20th century. His name was Ferdinand Lee and his family called him “Ferd”. I looked for him by his last name, his first name and every other way I could think of with no success. Finally, I was reduced to looking one-by-one through thousands of names on a county-by-county search through that part of the state and I finally found him. The enumerator had spelled his first name as “Fudge”. He had probably never heard of the name Ferdinand or Ferd before and just took a wild and very wrong guess.
In Dade County, for the 1880 census, the county was divided into nine districts with a different enumerator working each one. There was a time limit on getting the work finished and turned in, so the district had to be small enough that the enumerator could do the required traveling to visit every home, write the results, and complete a set of
summaries before turning in his results. (In those days, only men served as enumerators. I’m sure it wouldn’t have been considered proper for southern ladies of that era to go traipsing into strangers’ homes.) The Dade County districts for 1880 were: Coal, Sligo, Egypt, Creek, Mill, Rising Fawn, Upper, Mountain, and Trenton.
Most of the county was farm country and its citizens were either farm owners who worked their land or farm laborers who worked for others. There was a support group of other folks to provide the goods and services that the farmers couldn’t make or do for themselves such as blacksmiths, tanners, midwives, shoe makers, merchants, doctors, lawyers, preachers, etc. In looking at the census results showing all this, it’s amusing to see that the enumerators sometimes showed a little of their own opinions in what they wrote about the folks they interviewed. On one page of the 1880 census, two ministers are shown as living side-by-side. One is labeled as Methodist Episcopal; the other as “hard-shell Baptist”. I don’t think the enumerator was part of his congregation as this was not a really complimentary term at the time.
In browsing through most of 1880 Dade via the census, this agricultural focus is front and center, but there was at least one place where life was very different and the kind of peaceful existence that most of the populace enjoyed was not to be experienced by most of the population. That place was Cole City.
When we access the 1880 census data for that area, we first find a few pages that look very much like those for the rest of the county . The enumerator, Robert Lindsey, counted 954 individuals living in the Coal District in 103 families. Most of them are involved in the same activities as their fellow Dade Countians: there are 48 people who are either farmers or farm laborers, there is one teacher, two physicians, two ministers, one grocer, one bootmaker and three tanners. Then, mostly after the first few pages, occupations start to appear which are not at all typical of the county. There are also one mine supervisor, three railroad engineers, four machinists, four railroad brakemen, three railroad laborers, one railroad conductor, one “yard boss”, two civil engineers, and one company manager. Even more attention-getting are those labeled “convict guard’.
Then, on page 11 of the 20 pages dedicated to the Cole City census, there is a large space and a new heading in large letters ,”Prison Stockade” Next comes the name of the Superintendent, William O. Reese. After him comes a long list of prison guards who apparently live within the stockade. Those previously cited either lived out in the community with their families or boarded in one of the two boarding houses which are also listed. They total more than 30. Also living within the stockade are other necessary personnel including one cook, one store clerk. And another yard boss.
After the names of administrative personnel comes a list of the other occupants of the stockade – the prisoners. They are listed as miners by occupation, but their status as prisoners is also noted. There are 366 of them. Of those, 323 are black.
So, in 1880, in the middle of the “Coal” enumeration district lay a prison surrounded by a cluster of coal mines worked by a large number of miners and the majority of those were black and prisoners of the State of Georgia. This was a truly unique set-up and one that was found almost nowhere else. How it came about and the part it played in the history of Georgia at the time is for the next installment.
by Joy Odom