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Teaching With Documents:
Little House in the Census - Almanzo and Laura Ingalls Wilder

Every 10 years since 1790, the U.S. Government has taken a census to enumerate the population so as to apportion seats in the House of Representatives. Census enumerators canvass their districts house-to-house, collecting information about individuals and households on large forms called population schedules.

In each decennial census, Americans from the famous to the unsung and the infamous appear, including favorite figures of literature. Laura Ingalls, Almanzo Wilder, and their families of the popular Little House on the Prairie series were not merely characters of book and television. They were real people who appeared in the census many times, including those of 1880 in the Dakota Territory and 1900 in Missouri.

The information briefly tallied in the census reports gives us glimpses of the drama so richly and lovingly expanded upon by Laura Ingalls Wilder in her tales. For example, in the 1880 census, the records show that Mary, Laura's sister, was blind, but provided "help in keeping house." Enumerators in that census were instructed not to make such a note unless a daughter contributed substantially to the welfare of the household.

Thus, an imaginative researcher can surmise that Mary lived a productive life despite her blindness. One can confirm this hypothesis by reading the Little House books, learning that Mary attended and graduated from the Iowa School of the Blind.

The census sheets shown are two pages of the hundreds of thousands of pages in the custody of the National Archives. The National Archives holds original and microfilm copies of enumeration schedules from 1790 to 1870 and microfilm copies only of the 1880, 1900, 1910, and 1920 schedules. The microfilm copies of these schedules are available to researchers. Most of the 1890 census was destroyed by fire in 1921, but microfilm of surviving fragments is also open for examination. To protect the privacy of people enumerated during a census, the records are closed to research for 72 years. The release date for the 1930 census will be 2002. The schedules are part of the Records of the Bureau of the Census, Record Group 29.

The Ingalls and Wilder families can be found in the 1880 census of the Dakota Territory, Kingsburg County, T9, roll 113, enumeration district 87, supervisor's district 15, pages 146a and 147c, line 28 (document 1).Note In the 1900 census the married couple, Laura and Almanzo, appears in the schedule of Missouri, Wright County, T623, roll 908, enumeration district 152, supervisor's district 8, p. 226a, line 42 (document 2).Note

Census records for many states are incomplete. Before 1830, often only the number of persons in an enumeration district was forwarded to Washington, DC. Schedules from 1790 through 1840 give names of the heads of households only; other family members and slaves are tallied by age and sex. With each succeeding census, additional information was gathered, as can be seen in the examples from 1880 and 1900.

The National Archives has microfilmed all the available census schedules and the indexes to them. These microfilm rolls are arranged alphabetically by state and thereunder alphabetically by county. Usually, all of the schedules for one county are on the same roll; some rolls contain records for several counties. Microfilm copies of census schedules are available for use in the research rooms of the National Archives in Washington, DC, and its regional facilities. In addition, many state archives, state historical societies, and university and public libraries, and federal depository libraries have collections of census microfilm for researchers' use.

Information about microfilm publications related to the census schedules is available in the Online Catalog (OPA). This information includes how to order, where to view, and how to rent copies of microfilm.

The Documents

Thumbnail of  1880 Census Page
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Page from 1880 Census
National Archives and Records Administration
Records of the Bureau of the Census
Record Group 29

Thumbnail of 1900 Census Page
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Page from 1900 Census
National Archives and Records Administration
Records of the Bureau of the Census
Record Group 29

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Article Citation

Mueller, Jean West and Wynell Burroughs Schamel. "Little House in the Census: Almanzo and Laura Ingalls Wilder." Social Education 53, 7 (November/December 1989): 451-453.

 

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