History Bytes: Just out of Reach

July 21, 2022

This is a guest blog post by Laura Bacon, BA, Salve Regina University. Laura is a 2022 John E. McGinty Fellow, contributing towards the “BIPOC Biographies from the Archives of the Newport Historical Society” initiative. 

This summer, as a fellow at the Newport Historical Society, I have been working on a BIPOC database project, pulling information on individuals from historical documents within the NHS collections that are part of marginalized groups, mainly people of African descent and Native Americans. This information will later be used to create biographies, highlighting groups who have been left out of history for too long. The source I have been studying most recently is the Rhode Island Census from 1774.

I have been using this census to identify people of African descent and Indigenous persons that were part of Newport households in 1774. Predominantly, these are white-owned or led households in which enslaved people reside. Occasionally, I have found households where the head of household is an African American. Unfortunately, more often than not, the people of African descent and Indigenous persons listed in this census are unnamed.

Due to the fact that this census leaves hundreds of people unnamed, you may wonder what the benefit would be of using this census to create biographies for marginalized persons in Newport. How is creating an unnamed entry in a database going to teach anyone about life in this city for an African American or Indigenous person? It is important to highlight the fact that at this point in history, Indigenous peoples and African Americans were not thought of as worthy enough to be named in census documents. Instead of names, people from these groups were often referred to as “Indians,” “Blacks,” “Negros,” and worse. The 1774 census is one example of this kind of erasure.

I have looked at two versions of this census. The first was a transcribed version of the census, originally published in 1858, from NHS’s library collection. The second is a copy of the original census document, which is housed at the State Archives. Between these two documents there were major differences: one contained columns that showed the race, gender, and the approximate age of each member of a household, while the other did not. One would think that these valuable details would have appeared in the later version of the census, but that was not the case. The original census documents were the ones that included both sex and approximate age. The transcription of this census removed these aspects, only listing the approximate age and gender for white household members.

Entry for the household of Peleg Anthony in the 1774 Census for Newport, showing the original (below) and the transcribed version (above). While the later copy only indicates the number of Native Americans and Black individuals in the household, the original elaborates that the Indigenous person was a male under 16 years of age, while the Black individual was a male above 16 years of age.

My conjecture is that these details were removed to make sure all the information fit on the printed page. However, this was not done for the white members of households. Their genders and ages remained in-tact. At some point, it was decided that the ages or genders of enslaved Black and Indigenous peoples were not vital enough information to transcribe. So, in the effort to maintain history through publishing census records, that history was instead erased. This is contrary to the exact goal of the database project I have been working on all summer. Details of a person’s age and gender are incredibly helpful if we hope to figure out who these people are, to put names to those who are nameless.

The frustrating fact that these names are just out of reach does not, however, negate the vitality of the information provided by the census. The data I have gathered from the census does supply a stepping off point. I now know the head of households’ names, I know how many persons of color lived in that household, their genders, and their approximate ages. With further digging into more documents, most likely probate or church records, I can, hopefully, identify,  the names of these persons erased by both the original 1774 census and later published versions.

The legacy of slavery in America can and should be acknowledged. These census documents may only act as a tipping off point for learning about the existence of these persons; the next step would be to figure out the names of hopefully all of them and then, finally, discover who they were as a person as well and what happened to them throughout their lives.