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Treasures of the Archives: Census Record Highlights Diversity of Early Washington

Detail of the 1850 Clark County Census shows a household inhabited by HBC Chief Factor Peter Skene Ogden, the mixed-raced children he had with his native wife, and two Hawaiian employees of the Hudson’s Bay Company. 1850 Clark County Census, Washington State Archives, Digital Archives.

Detail of the 1850 Clark County Census shows a household inhabited by HBC Chief Factor Peter Skene Ogden, the mixed-raced children he had with his native wife, and two Hawaiian employees of the Hudson’s Bay Company. 1850 Clark County Census, Washington State Archives, Digital Archives, http://www.digitalarchives.wa.gov.

One of the older digitized records we have here at the archives is the 1850 Clark County Census. The federal census is mandated by the U.S. Constitution and takes place every ten years. In many cases it is the most complete record we have of past communities. The 1850 Clark County Census vividly illustrates a diverse community of peoples from all over the world, and can serve as a model of how historians tease information out of census records.

Take, for example, the first page of the Clark County census. In the first house we find Antoine Gober, a 52-year old farmer from Canada, his 28-year-old Indian wife Arshela, and their 5 children ages 5 years to 10 months. His French name and Canadian birth tell us that Gober had almost certainly been an employee of the one of the British fur companies that established so many trading posts across the northwest. Antoine might himself been of mixed native and white parentage--many of the French Canadian fur traders were. The census taker seems to have been uncertain, he left that portion of the form blank. Many of the fur trade employees such as Gober married native women in Canada and brought their brides (often Cree) to the Northwest. However that is not the case with Arshela, whose nativity is recorded as “OT”--meaning the Oregon Territory. So she was a member of a local tribe.

The second house (note the “2” in the far right column) has a mixed set of residents. First listed is Peter O’Banford, a 26-year-old sailor from Scotland. He was presumably a boarder in the home, a common practice throughout the 19th century. He may also have been related the the mistress of the house, Isabella, who was also born in Scotland. The home’s owner was F. M. Wallace, a 43-year-old cabinetmaker from Vermont. Their three children include a 9-year-old and a 4-year-old who were born in Missouri, so we know the family migrated from the Midwest to the Northwest sometime after 1846.

The third household is that of a famous name in Northwest history, Peter Skene Odgen, Chief Factor of the Hudson's Bay Company. Curiously, his native wife Julia (whom we know about from other sources) is not listed on the census, but his children Fabia and Theresse are listed. Two men from the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) also lived in the home. The fur companies often recruited workers from Hawaii, these “Owyhees” as they were known had a broad presence in the early Northwest.

Seven other households are listed on this page of the census. All appear to be fur trade families, with the heads of household born in either England, Scotland or Canada, and the children born in the Oregon Territory. It is to be observed that one eight-year-old boy was named “Man O War Lord,” for reasons that have been lost to history. The remainder of the census shows emigrants from Germany, Ireland, and most of the American states that existed at that time.