Friday, November 07, 2008

Family history census mystery

kw: discoveries, genealogy, census records

The name "McKown" is one of the most frequently misspelled names in US Census history. Here we have two brothers, recorded in the 1860 census, whose surname is given as "McKowan". Not too bad, compared to McGowan, McCoun, McKeon and McCowen (see below).

The elder brother, John D McKown, is my great-great grandfather. He it is who received the old family fiddle sometime after 1840. [11/9/08: generational note, found to be inaccurate, removed]

Here we see John, aged 41, and his 27-year-old brother, living next door to one another in Marshall, MO, working as Plasterers. But my focus here is on the whereabouts of John D McKown ten years earlier. He was rather hard to find in the 1850 census. I dug, and dug, and finally found him...twice!

Here is John's family in 1850. His name is recorded as "McCowen" and no middle initial is given. His age looks like 37, but he was 31 at the time. The census taker seems to have dragged into his "1" making it look more like his usual "7". His occupation is states as Bellowsmaker. I guess that was a skill of sufficient demand to be one's main occupation. It is also a clue to the veracity of a second record.

This record is from Ward 4, St. Louis, MO, where the family lived before moving to Marshall. While the violin was obtained in St. Louis, in Marshall the daughter Margaret (spelled "Margarette" here) met J.G. Nye, my great-grandfather.

I found this record after a bit of a search. It took a lot more digging than the 1860 one, but the fact that McKown was misspelled in the 1860 record kept me looking at all the variations. A "soundex" search of an Internet index helped a lot.

A few days ago I took another look at the record I'd found for John's parents, James B and Bethia (or Bertha in some records). Here the surname is spelled McKeon. There John D was, aged 31, with his 17-year-old brother James and three other siblings. Both he and his father are listed as Bellowsmakers (that squiggle is an 1850 "ditto" mark: "Do"). This record is from Ward 3 of St. Louis.

I don't yet know the exact addresses, but I suspect the wards were not very large, and John and his father may have been in business together and lived quite nearby. The census taker happened to come by when father and son were at the father's home, so he got recorded as part of that household on Sept. 16, 1850. The record of John in his own home was made on Sept. 20.

I wonder how many people got recorded in the census? This is the only case I've heard of.


terrycolvin said...

Wow. I just discovered this page and your blog. We appear to be distant cousins. James B. McKown was my great-great grandfather. That would make Bethia McKown my great-great-great grandmother. Do you know about her Civil War letters to her sons? If not, email at and I can point you to a fabulous resource.

Michael Colvin said...

Terry, my brother, and I are indeed related to James B. McKown. Bethia Phillips Donelson is related to the Whites, who were one of the original Mayflower families. That had been a family "legend" backed up by a genealogy that Bethia had had prepared when the McKowns lived in St. Louis. We have the original genealogy, and I was rather skeptical as to its authenticity until I did the research and discovered that the genealogy is accurate.

In her letters at the Western Historical Archive of the University of Missouri, Bethia also claimed to be a cousin of Andrew Jackson by marriage. Bethia was a staunch Southern Sympathizer during the Civil War. After James B. McKown, Sr. died, Bethia apparently had some difficult years. She was left basically penniless, and didn't want to throw herself on the charity of either James,Jr. or John, who both served in Union military units. She wrote of her suspicions that James, Jr.'s wife Samantha was a spy for the Union, because of the frequent visits of Confederate officers while James, Jr. was away on military operations. She referred to both of her sons as "Black Republicans". It was in that context that she expressed a forlorn hope that her cousin's family might be able to help support her.

As for the authenticity of Bethia's claim to be a relative of Andrew Jackson, the President's wife was Rachel Donelson, so the surname certainly is right, but I have not yet made the connection. I'm wondering if you have any knowledge of that.