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Getting Past the 1870 Census: An Example

Many people are still learning that it is possible to find records of an ancestor before the 1870 Census. Even fewer realize how to analyze the 1870 Census to learn more. It is even more difficult for a significant number of African Americans because only free people were enumerated before 1870. Below you will find an example of how analyzing your family or those nearby in 1870 can help you discover more clues.

1870 household

     This is the index of the 1870 Census for Pettus Wales Chick and his family in Goshen Hill, Union County, SC. Review the household both on the index and on the original image for everyone in the household. You will need to enlarge the original image to see the details better. This is the household of Pettus in 1870:


1.       Pettis Chick, 63, male white merchant, real estate value of $2,400, personal $4,000

2.       Sarah Chick, 54, a white female, keeps house

3.       Ann Flowers, 60, white female, without occupation

4.       S. Henderson, 38, white female, without occupation

5.       Elizabeth, 13, white female, at home

     People of color have been enumerated on both sides of Pettus' household. In addition to that, the net worth of Pettus could mean that he was formerly an enslaver. The people of color living next to him may have been formerly enslaved by him. You have a choice of stepping back further in time in the records or searching for a will to learn more about the relationships listed in the 1870 Census.

Exhaust the historical records

     It is always preferable to exhaust the most recent records first because they might mention people further back, and you will be more sure how they are connected. A will for Pettus was discovered. Pettus wrote out his will on March 12, 1876. It is full of rich details about family relationships. His will was probated in 1878.

     In 1876, Pettus included Eliza whom he called little Eliza, and her son, Anderson in his will. He did not mention any of his own children. This is the same Eliza and Anderson living next to him.

     To learn more, you need to step back each year on the census. Here are the census results:

•       1860 Census - The household includes Pettus, Sarah, and Eliza Maybin (79) His net worth was over $87,000.

•       1850 Census - The household includes Pettus and his wife, Sarah.

•       1850 Census Slave Schedule – Proves Pettus was a slaveholder in 1850.

     Now you may wonder how Pettus acquired his wealth. You do not know the name of his father, and the 1840 Census only lists the head of the household. Perhaps there is a will for his father. This is a little easier to do on because probate records have been indexed. Searching for a will from the individual record for Pettus Chick on leads to a will that mentions Pettus (1846). Pettus was the son of Dr. Burwell Chick, and Pettus inherited Eliza from his father. It is a mistake to research only people who are the same color because the path of discovery leads to documentation on both colors of people who interacted with each other.

Check the wills

     In conclusion, Eliza lived next door to Pettus Chick in 1870. Pettus left property to Eliza and Anderson in his 1876 will. Searching for a mention in the will of parents of Pettus led to finding a mention of Eliza in Feb 1846. This illustrates how researching the family group and neighbors living nearby on the 1870 Census can help you find documentation as you step back in time. You could also choose to research Sarah to discover who her parents are, or you could research other members of her household in 1870.

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