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1885 Census sheds light on past

by Nancy Christofferson

HUERFANO- There seems to be a difference of opinion – a non-consensus, perhaps – concerning the 2000 census and how many people actually responded to it in Huerfano County.  If for no other reason to respond in 2010, one should consider the census to be a valuable historical document to be left for one’s descendents.

    The United States census has been compiled every ten years since 1790, and has proven to be a boon to genealogists and historians as well as those family members simply curious about their forebears.  Years ago it also became a valuable tool for those trying to prove their ages when the first Social Security and pension payment plans were established during the Great Depression.  A great many parents had not registered their children’s births, so they were invisible to the government and had to prove their ages in order to become eligible for benefits.

    Past censuses have asked some very personal questions, from how many bathrooms one’s home contained (if any) to one’s private income.  This was indeed intrusive in many ways but provides an excellent window into the past.

    This writer’s favorite census, hands down, is that of 1885.  Now, 1885 was not the regular year, that had been 1880, but a Congressional act of 1879 called for a special federal census to be taken in 1885 in only the states of Florida, Nebraska and Colorado, and the territories of New Mexico and the Dakotas.  This was called a semi-decennial census, as opposed to a decennial one.  It proved especially important to these states after a fire destroyed almost the entire 1890 census for all the states and territories.

    Colorado’s first census was taken in 1860, the year before it became a territory.  Whether it was true for the whole state, estimates were made in Huerfano County, and that estimate was a population of about 50, and this when the county stretched to the New Mexico and Kansas borders.  The 1870 census showed Huerfano to have 2,250 inhabitants and in 1880, 4,124.  The lost census of 1890 was said to have included 6,882 residents’ information.

    Huerfano County’s 1885 census was taken by enumerators on foot, horseback or wagon, and the distances must have been trying.  The original Congressional act said the count must be taken in the two months following the first Monday in June!  Imagine these enumerators riding from one end of Huerfano County to the other in just two months, stopping at each homestead or farm, coal camp or cabin, to ask their questions, in rain and mud.  The specifics to be covered for each family member included name, race, gender, age, marital status, profession, relationship to the head of the family, place of birth plus places of birth of both parents, and the ability to read and/or write.  Although there were several enumerators, there were still no more than a half dozen, if that many.  One assumes they were bilingual.

    Each census form was filled out by hand, and the legibility relied on the enumerator’s handwriting and spelling.  Some of the names and professions are badly mangled, so those trying to make sense of them today have to use a little imagination mixed with some educated guesses.

    The enumerators also differed in technique.  Some used only the initials of each family member’s first name, leaving a lot of mystery.  One preferred to call the young people enrolled in school “scholars,” which seems optimistic, while another just notes “at school.”

    The 1885 census takers found a population of 5,117 in Huerfano County.  Of these, 1,641 were born in New Mexico.  This is not surprising since, before 1861, southeastern Colorado was a part of New Mexico Territory.  These people didn’t even have to move to live in a different territory.  In addition, nearly 2,050 were born in Colorado – all under the age of 25 since Colorado did not exist before their birth.

1885 Census continued next week