Author: Dr. Dan Trepal
The Keweenaw Time Traveler Project is designed for exploring the historical people, places, and stories of the Keweenaw and Copper Country. Our information about historical people comes from a wide variety of historical records, and the largest and most detailed set of records we have to work with is the US decennial census. Our latest version of the Keweenaw Time Traveler App will launch this summer with a huge new amount of historical data drawn from the census. Let’s take a minute for a quick overview of what the US census is and what you will be able to learn from census data in the Keweenaw Time traveler.
The US Constitution contains provisions for conducting a ‘decennial’ (once every ten years) census, which is a detailed count of the nation’s population. The US government conducted its first census in 1790, and has continued to do so every ten years, through the latest census in 2020. Since 1902 the census has been managed by the US Census Bureau. For people interested in history the census is a priceless record. This is because it attempts to record each and every US citizen, and includes important details including their name, address, age, sex, family status and composition, occupation, immigration status, country of origin, language spoken, and literacy, among others. As a result, the census is the largest, most detailed, and most complete record we have for people living in the US - and in the Copper Country! - and it preserves many fascinating details about their lives.
All US Census records have been retained by the Federal government - and while they are public records, the sheer size of the censuses (in their original paper form, or as microfilm copies) makes them difficult to use for historical or genealogy research. These physical records are also at risk of damage, like any archival document. In 1921, a portion of the records for the 1890 census were damaged in a fire in a federal repository in Washington DC, and most of the damaged records were later destroyed. As a result, the 1890 census has largely been lost. This led to more careful storage, but highlighted the need for a better way to store and access the census.
Beginning in the 1990s, a large research project called the Integrated Public Use Microdata Series, or IPUMS, began creating a digital version of the US census records. This eventually grew into a collaboration with the genealogical organization FamilySearch and the genealogical companies HeritageQuest and Ancestry.com. IPUMS has also built their own online portal for accessing census data. The result of this huge ongoing project is that census records now exist in a searchable, digital online format that is much more accessible to experts and the public alike. IPUMS has also expanded its census work to other national censuses, so that it now includes a total of about 1 billion individual records from more than 100 countries.
The Keweenaw Time Traveler project has partnered with IPUMS to incorporate census data for the Houghton and Keweenaw counties for the period from 1880 through 1940 (excluding the ‘lost’ 1890 census). Our census dataset contains nearly 380,000 individual records for this period, making it the biggest record set in the Keweenaw Time Traveler. The census data helps us to ‘populate’ the historical Copper Country with the people who lived and worked there in the 19th and 20th centuries, with all the details showing their backgrounds, livelihoods, social connections - in short, hundreds of thousands of the individual life stories that make up the heritage of Copper Country. In a future blog post, we will talk more about how we have mapped people in these censuses to our digital historical landscape in the Keweenaw Time Traveler, tying the original census data even more closely to the historical landscape of the copper country, and making it easier for you to explore your history.