What Can the 1870 Census Tell Us About Reconstruction in the Panhandle?

For many of us who are into history and genealogy, we are always wanting to know what a particular ancestor experienced during certain major events from the past. You might want to know what battles an ancestor was in during the War for Southern Independence (aka Civil War, War Between the States) or what an ancestor grew on their farm during the late 19th century or what a female ancestor did to keep body and soul together after her spouse died. Unfortunately, unless you had an ancestor who religiously kept a diary and it has survived and is available for your reading pleasure, you are going to have to do a little research and sometimes draw conclusions from indirect sources of information. It can be a time-consuming venture, especially if you are a tiny bit obsessed and always looking for another source but some general observations can be obtained from a source seldom considered for this kind of research: the census. Every census was a little different with different questions and census-takers who sometimes recorded clearly and some who didn’t. But it is a good place to start to get a view of your ancestor’s community during a particular point in history. Let’s focus on Reconstruction in the panhandle.

If you want to see what changes have occurred in a community over time, you should consider reviewing a previous census, such as the 1860 census for Reconstruction review. Remember that the census-taker was likely two different people and answers to questions may have been recorded differently. Before navigating to a particular ancestor or community/precinct, take the time to read the summary of what the enumerators were supposed to record. On Ancestry that would be below the search form for the 1870 census in the case we are exploring. If you are really interested in understanding what was supposed to be recorded, check out the U.S. Census page on Instructions to Enumerators for 1870. I make this suggestion because a lot of family historians rush to find their ancestor’s name and they record the folks listed in the household and maybe where they were born and just don’t pay much attention to the rest of the questions. It is best not to make assumptions about what was recorded.

A good case in point is age. The age provided is the age at last birthday. The official enumeration date for 1870 was 1 June 1870. All questions were to refer to that date. So, if your ancestor was born on 30 May 1860 his birthday listed should be 10. If his birthday was 15 June 1860, his age listed would be 9. So, know your research source when starting out on gathering data.

The other problem with the 1870 census in the panhandle is something that some researchers and online database providers will tell you isn’t a problem. But it is. For instance, I have tried for years to find my ancestors who were living in the upper Yellow River area in what was then Santa Rosa County. None of them are in any of the indexed databases and going through the Santa Rosa 1870 census page by page has still not provided any of them. I have also gone through Walton Co, FL and Covington Co, AL with no success. If it was one ancestor, it could be they temporarily moved, or their names are misspelled, or some other anomaly but not multiple people living in the same area in 1860 and again in 1880. So secluded, rural areas could have been missed or some pages lost at some point between the census taker, the transcriber and the Census Bureau. But for this exercise we are looking for patterns that can tell us a bit about the broader community your ancestor lived in.

Let me start by confessing that I have not completely gone page by page in every county in the panhandle in 1870. For this blog, I chose select areas in the larger counties. For instance, for Escambia County, I visited Warrington and Molino.  For Jackson County, I visited Marianna. For Holmes, Walton, Calhoun and Washington I did the whole county. For those who aren’t familiar with the years that panhandle counties were formed, Okaloosa, Bay, and Gulf did not exist in 1870. Another issue in comparing findings across the 1860 and 1870 census is that in the panhandle in 1860 we seldom see an “occupation” for the senior woman (often wife of the head of household, but not always) listed as other than housekeeper. But in 1860 that was a weighty occupation.

She cleaned a house that was not airtight and without anything other than a broom and maybe some piece of cloth for dusting, she cooked over a wood-burning stove or in front of an open fireplace, she preserved produce from the garden, she may have woven cloth and certainly made the family’s clothes by hand (the sewing machine was a new invention in 1860 and not widely distributed), she likely quilted the covers that kept the family as warm as possible in the dead of winter, again with needle and thread. She made lye soap over a kettle in the yard. She washed clothes using a tub and a wash board for scrubbing. She likely helped with weeding and harvesting crops. She likely took care of the chickens, including killing the chickens for the table. She may have been responsible for some of the moonshine production and maybe beer making and may have made some of the folk medicines the family would need for minor ailments. She nursed family members when they were sick and laid out the ones who didn’t make it for burial. And she taught her daughters skills they would need once married and often was pregnant for 9 months out of every 2 years. All of those and maybe more depending on family circumstances fell under housekeeping.

1870 was in the heart of the Reconstruction years. It officially ended in 1877. The War for Southern Independence had ended 5 years before in 1865. Federal troops were still located in some areas of the Panhandle and in the urban areas we see presence of some men who were likely stationed in the Panhandle during the war and stayed afterwards, marrying a local woman and having a family. While some former enslaved did move from the areas where they were enslaved looking for spouses and children, many were not far from their former owners and may or may not still carry the owners surname. The federal government strongly encouraged these folks to settle down where they were freed from slavery and enter into contracts with former owners to try and get the country back to a state similar to pre-war. Of course, as those of us today know from 2 years of a pandemic, returning to “normal” after a major disruption of society and relationships between people isn’t as quick and easy as politicians would like it to be.

Nearly a quarter of the southern men who fought for the Confederacy did not return home, either because of death on the battlefield, infection after injury, or illness; and many who did return did so without a limb, debilitated by disease, or with undiagnosed PTSD. So it is reasonable to assume we see many more female heads of household in 1870 than in previous census and that is in fact what we find. It is more prevalent in the rural areas of the panhandle. That would likely be because she would have fewer opportunities to remarry. Even then we see in some cases the oldest son is listed first with an occupation of farmer and his mother is listed as housekeeping. That also was often the occupation given her when the persons in the household would appear to be boarders or hired help. Most of the occupations for women were those that could still be done at home; laundress, seamstress, cook, tailoress, and washer woman. Generally the “servants” and “nurses/nannies” lived with their employers. Some of these women were black, many were white. But we do see some new occupations for women; retail grocer, keeping boardinghouse, miller, hotel keeper, spinner, weaver, postmistress, and farm laborer. The only county where I saw spinners and weavers was Walton County. And that was the only county that had a resident “harlot”. She must have been busy since she was apparently working the entire panhandle!

One of the reasons we see fewer female heads of household in the larger, more urban communities is there was a larger presence of men from the northern states and from countries overseas available for marriage. It is quite common to see the head of household from a more northern state or foreign country with the wife and children all locally born. In at least one case in Jackson County a woman was listed as head of household with sizeable real estate and personal property.

In most of the rural counties, blacks and whites were neighbors, likely because as already mentioned the blacks were encouraged to stay put and enter into contracts with previous owners. But generally the races were not highly segregated though we do need to keep in mind that “next-door-neighbor” even in urban areas wasn’t quite the close space that it is today. The absence of segregation was very obvious in Molino where the lumber industry was a major employer and lumbermen came from both races. One interesting observation was there weren’t many persons listed as mulatto except in Calhoun and Jackson counties where they far outnumbered black residents in Calhoun and were numerous in Jackson. It was these two counties where the plantation system was present in the panhandle with more large plantations than in the rest of the counties. Whether that led to more abuse of the relationship between owners and enslaved I will leave up to the reader to determine for themselves.

Most of the small towns had several grocers, at least one physician and a couple had a dentist and an apothecary. Larger towns had several lawyers, especially if they were the county seat, though I’m not convinced that was a sign of progress. Most of the areas, rural and urban had at least one schoolteacher, a miller and a blacksmith. In the larger populated areas there was generally more than one schoolteacher and usually at least one black schoolteacher. Warrington had a photographer and Marianna had a newspaper editor. The most lucrative occupation was merchant. They were doing well most everywhere which indicates that the local economies were rising out of the hole created by the war.

The War for Southern Independence was a devastating war for the United States and more in the south than the north, though no one escaped some impact. When a large-scale event severely impacts human societies it does take time to find a new normal, especially if infrastructure and people were the primary impacts. Prior to the War there were usually a number of households who were wealthy by the standards of the day, both in real estate and personal property. And these were often farmers. After the war that was not the case. Property wasn’t worth as much and people did not have as much to invest in property. We can see the beginning of the shift into wages in the 1870 census in the South. Wage earners were much more likely to buy already-made goods than to produce their own which certainly led to the increasing wealth of the merchant class.

Next time you find an ancestor in a census, take the time to survey the community they were in and draw some conclusions about what it would have been like to live there. Sometimes historical insights can teach us lessons for today. Maybe teach us to practice patience in emerging from a major event that devastated an area or a nation or the world.

I will be taking off from November through January. I hope all have a blessed and wonderful holiday season, regardless of the holiday you are celebrating. May the New Year bring peace and stability to the world.

Until Next Time


© 2022

2 thoughts on “What Can the 1870 Census Tell Us About Reconstruction in the Panhandle?

  1. Yea, I am starting to believe that the census takers just missed folks, sometimes. Twice, I have come across relatives who I know from other records were in fact in a particular place. Yet, their names and the names of members of their household are nowhere to be found. Once, I scrolled through some 200 pages of census records thinking the ancestor’s name was perhaps too faint to be picked up by the search function. But, never did find the name.

    Great post. Thanks for posting.

    Liked by 1 person

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