The First Census – North Carolina – 1790

Life with Pretty is always an adventure with few dull moments. For example, we just spent at least five minutes downstairs hollering at each other about whether I had used her gift certificate she gave me for Christmas for a free massage with our friend Meghan or not, and she must be right… because she must be right, which is a family trait on her daddy’s side.  All of this heated discussion started when I found a Subway gift card I had given her for Christmas in the envelope with the massage certificates. It was downhill from there.


Pretty on the steps of Casa de Canterbury

One of the biggest bonuses of life with Pretty, however, is her fascination with books – any book, all books – which has resulted in the largest collection of books in Casa de Canterbury I’ve personally seen anywhere other than a public library or the Adams house in Quincy, Massachusetts where John and John Quincy kept their books in a separate building from their home.

I find myself having access to unique books as a result of Pretty’s library, and last week she had a copy of the First Census – North Carolina lying on a stack of books in our living room. The Department of Commerce and Labor Bureau of the Census took the first census of the Heads of Families in the year 1790. Pretty’s copy of this North Carolina count was printed in 1908 by the Washington Printing Office. To put this in historical perspective, the Union consisted of 12 states when the First Census Act was passed on March 1, 1790 and signed by President George Washington, who was, as we recall, our first President.

In that first census in North Carolina, there were five categories of people to be counted:

(1) Free white males of 16 years and upward, including heads of families

(2) Free white males under 16 years

(3) Free white females, including heads of families

(4) All other free persons

(5) Slaves

Now why would I have any interest in this very old census, you might ask? Good question. The answer is Ding, Ding, Ding! the daily double.

I have relatives from both of my paternal grandparents who lived in North Carolina in 1790 when this census was taken, and I wondered if I might be able to locate any of them. I knew about my family’s early connections to the state through my Ancestry Family Tree which has now given me way too much information about my forefathers.

For example, my fourth great-grandfather William Morris was born in King George County, Virginia in 1730 and died in 1802 in Anson County, North Carolina. I wondered if I could find him in the 1790 Census since he likely would have been living in North Carolina at that time. Totally made sense.

And in fact, I did find not one, but two William Morrises living in the Fayette District of Anson County, North Carolina during the census-taking.

The first William had 1 free white male of 16 years and upward, 1 free white male under 16 years, 2 free white females and 2 slaves. I really was thunderstruck by that. I’m not sure what I had thought about my 4th. great-grandfather, but I had never in my wildest dreams imagined he was a slave owner. Surely it was a mistake.

The second William Morris had 2 free white males of 16 years and upward, 1 free white male under 16 years, 2 free white females…and 4 slaves. Oh my God, I thought, that’s even worse.

The ancestors I assumed would hold some moral objection or righteous indignation at the concept of owning another human being were actually slave owners themselves. I felt ashamed and sick at heart. I didn’t like that DNA flowing through me. I wish I hadn’t found it out, but there it was printed in a book published by the government.

Well, back then everybody in North Carolina owned slaves – it was part of the agrarian economy, right?

Wrong. While many of the households had slaves, many did not. My people did.

My friend Millie Miller warned me that if I went down the Ancestry trail I would find out things I might not want to know. She was right – that same being right trait runs in her family, too, by the way.

Nothing can change the reality of my family’s participation in this dark blight on American history – I would give anything if I could change that.

But February is Black History Month, and what I can do today is celebrate the victories that have occurred in the Civil Rights movement during my lifetime and recognize the vast chasms of inequality that are the remainders of generations of oppression yet to be overcome and do my part to be on the right side of history in this moment.

As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Our freedom was not won a century ago, it is not won today; but some small part of it is in our hands, and we are marching no longer by ones and twos but in legions of thousands, convinced now it cannot be denied by human forces.”

About Sheila Morris

Sheila Morris is a personal historian, essayist with humorist tendencies, lesbian activist, truth seeker and speaker in the tradition of other female Texas storytellers including her paternal grandmother. In December, 2017, the University of South Carolina Press published her collection of first-person accounts of a few of the people primarily responsible for the development of LGBTQ organizations in South Carolina. Southern Perspectives on the Queer Movement: Committed to Home will resonate with everyone interested in LGBTQ history in the South during the tumultuous times from the AIDS pandemic to marriage equality. She has published five nonfiction books including two memoirs, an essay compilation and two collections of her favorite blogs from I'll Call It Like I See It. Her first book, Deep in the Heart: A Memoir of Love and Longing received a Golden Crown Literary Society Award in 2008. Her writings have been included in various anthologies - most recently the 2017 Saints and Sinners Literary Magazine. Her latest book, Four Ticket Ride, was released in January, 2019. She is a displaced Texan living in South Carolina with her wife Teresa Williams and their dogs Spike, Charly and Carl. She is also Naynay to her two granddaughters Ella and Molly James who light up her life for real. Born in rural Grimes County, Texas in 1946 her Texas roots still run wide and deep.
This entry was posted in Lesbian Literary, Life, Personal, Reflections, The Way Life Is and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to The First Census – North Carolina – 1790

  1. Angela DeBruhl says:

    Haha, Millie Miller is always right except when I’m right……

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Luanne @ TFK says:

    I’ve read accounts of others who have found the same distressing information. There is something horrifying about it. I have not found that with my relatives who were all more recent immigrants and mainly came to the north, but my grandmother’s brother-in-law was from North Carolina (Lincoln, for one place). I believe I did discover that some in his family were slave owners. I didn’t do too much investigation because it was a bit too far afield when I have so much work still to do in my own lines. That 4th category is interesting: so would that be free blacks? and Chinese or Chinese-Americans? Those old racial classifications are horrifying and fascinating at the same time.
    On another note, so are you DAR material? hehehe

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi, Luanne…your post cards at TFK were really fabulous – I so prefer the past to the present these days except when I make horrible discoveries from a 1790 census.
      Wasn’t that a fascinating category? I have no idea what that would be – hadn’t thought of free blacks, but that makes sense. Chinese or Chinese-Americans in 1790 in NC in 1790? I just don’t know.
      Yes, I am DAR material – one of my cousins has tracked that down with the paperwork, etc. – also Daughters of the Republic of Texas…very storied …but no thanks, to the joining!! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Wayside Artist says:

    We can’t change the past. It’s sobering to read our personal histories, but as you say, we can make a difference now. And we must, if it’s only an adjustment in how we view “the other” as someone with the same rights and expectations as we have and hold.

    Liked by 1 person

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