Penasco Pioneers - The Census  by Jim Mason

In this year of the census, particularly in the light of the attention it has drawn, perhaps it might be of interest to look at a non issue-oriented feature or two. As one whose interest is in history I find my view of that document to be a little out of step with most of the concerns I hear. In researching Penasco pioneers the census has been an important source of information more than once, but it isn't easy to find the Penasco in the census because it wasn't always in the same county. In 1870 the Penasco was in Dona Ana County and little attention was paid it in that census. In 1880 and 1890 Lincoln County had jurisdiction and from 1900 on it was in Otero County.

The census in those early days was taken door-to-door by an individual carrying a large ledger style book and traveling by horseback or wagon. He (I haven't yet found a female census taker although some undoubtedly were) would write the information down, with as much order as possible, as it was given. Of course we don't get to see those ledgers today but microfilm copies instead. Sometimes the pages were mildewed or water stained before they were copied. Sometimes the census taker watered his ink making it almost illegible. And most irritating of all the lists were audited later by someone who left notations written over the names, probably in red, but on the film they look just like the original.

Besides varying degrees of caligraphic skill there were also different styles; for example occasionally a census taker would note in the margin when he changed from township to another or one canyon to another - most helpful in locating people. Occasionally a diligent enumerator would record the information on separate pages later to be transferred in alphabetical order to the final record, but there is a problem here; you don't get a picture of the neighborhood - who lived next to whom. Then I have seen one case where the entries were alphabetized by given name instead of surname!?

Each census sheet was headed with the county name, date, and town or township if applicable, but in rural areas often simply a precinct number was entered - not too helpful if you don't know the political divisions in the particular year, and remember those changed from one census to the next, for that is after all the purpose of the census. The result of all this is that one spends a lot of time just browsing, looking at names, noting name associations, comparing names on maps etc.

Names are fascinating things. Take the Lincoln County, NM census for 1880 for example, a year in which there weren't many folks in the Sacramentos. One page of the census carries the heading `Rio Penasco' and on it were thirteen households, a total of 42 souls between present Mahill and Cloudcroft (Neither was there at the time). The name Coe is there - Albert and his brother Austin. In the following year they would go back to Missouri, Albert to return with a wife, Mollie (Mayhill), and his parents. Her parents would follow and settle on the site of present Mahill. (Read more about them in Otero County Pioneer Family Histories, Vol 1) (OCPFH-1)

Other names on the list include the John James family of nine, who later returned to Texas, leaving only the name of the canyon. Because the record shows that John and Julia's children down to six year old Willie were born in Texas and that four year old `Meldridge' (Mildred?) was born in New Mexico we can tell that they came to New Mexico between 1874 and 1876. Thus it is helpful that the census included places of birth and also that sex was indicated. Those who have used census data earlier than 1850 appreciate the value of including names and ages of all in the household.

The enumerator of this particular census was Tom Tillotson, also listed in it as a farmer. Occupations were included for all adults, thus we find farmers, blacksmiths, stage drivers, sawyers, miners, stock buyers, etc. For women though it was nearly always 'keeping house' and the reason is obvious - the house nearly always had five or six children.

We see from the dates given that Mr Tillotson required six days in June to canvass the thirteen households in James Canyon. Besides the families mentioned there were William Rand, Thomas Weathered, Robert Walters and William Warren, all farmers. There were cowboys too; Jerry Hathaway, Robert Disson and Thomas Morry gave their occupations as `herding cattle', and one `sheep herder' Andrew Richardson, all single men. That only two of the adults on the list were born in New Mexico Territory shows the fairly recent settlement of the Sacramentos; after all New Mexico had only been a United States possession for some thirty years and not until the seventies did the Sacramentos begin to be settled.

If we allow our browsing to take us slightly further afield we find other familiar names. In precinct 5 of Lincoln County was a young Patrick Garrett, age 20 and wife Polinaria. He is listed as a farmer. Precinct 5 apparently was the Pecos valley. A bit farther down the page is the Thomas Holloman farm. Then there are the brothers Chissom (Chisholm), James, John and (illegible), all `dealers in cattle' and long known for driving cattle herds from Texas to Kansas. The storied Chisholm Trail in east Texas and Oklahoma had taken its name from their father Jesse. Other familiar local names include Fall, McKittrick, Rhodes and Wildy.

But to return to the Penasco, the census, with its obvious flaws, can be used to some advantage in constructing a small snapshot of life at a particular time in a particular place. I have mentioned (Part 3) the recollections of Frances (Davis) Young of families living in Wills Canyon in the 1920s when she was growing up; another such recollection is found in the excellent memoirs of Minnie (Nations) McNatt (OCPFH 2, p.265) whose family moved to Wills Canyon ("the old McDaniel's place") in 1893 when she was twelve. She recalled that her neighbors there included the Jim Swope family, the Tom Flemming family, the Waldrips, the Eanes, the Merrills, the Popes and the Mauldins (last up the canyon). Later in 1901 Minnie was back in Wills teaching school and in 1903, newly married to Arthur (Art) McNatt, she and Art rented the Tom Flemming place.

In the 1910 census we find the Shelby Davis family as household 153 (hh 153). This would be the Tom Flemming place which Shelby had bought in 1903 and to which he moved his family in 1908. In hh 154 were Jack and Ora Swope (looks like Ava in the census but Minnie called her Ora) with two children. In hh 155 were James and Ullie Waldrip with seven children; in hh 157 were Matthew and Sadie McNatt (Matthew was Minnie's brother-in-law); in hh 158 Walter and Christina Merrill; in hh 159 George and Samantha Eanes.

Minnie also remembered `brother' Amos and Amber Carlisle, that they came to Wills Canyon in 1895 because he was very sick with TB and that his health steadily improved. Amos was a Methodist preacher and officiated at Minnie and Art's wedding. In the census of 1910 hh 145 (down the canyon) is the Carlisle's. Frances Young remembered the Carlisles too from the 1920s as the first house as you turned up Wills Canyon. Mountain air must have been good for Amos.

For most of us the census is just another bureaucratic exercise. For the one interested in `what happened here' it is at once a useful and distressing source of data - useful for what it contains, distressing for what it doesn't. Maybe the 2000 census will be an alternate combination but either way it will make no difference to this generation because law forbids its publication for seventy years. That means that the most recent census available for research up to now has been that of 1920 and soon the 1930 census will be available. But from a vantage of one hundred twenty years to see the names that have become a part of our history, some already larger than life, others not yet known, recorded simply as statistics all alike, gives one a perspective that is a little different from the history books - a sense of contact.