Looking Back: The 1870 federal census and yet another genealogy pitfall

Anastasia and Alexander Spithill (Source: Jack Kidder collection)
Anastasia and Alexander Spithill (Source: Jack Kidder collection)

A very puzzling roadblock came to light with the 1870 decennial federal census when I was gathering information while writing the book Chirouse, I could find no listing for Tulalip in Snohomish County. At this same time, I was also researching the history of the pioneering Spithill family. I ran into the identical problem in both cases. None of these people were shown in the Snohomish County census records for 1870. What could have happened to them? This posed an unusual mystery.

Alexander Spithill (1824-1920) left his native country of Scotland, sailed the seas, and eventually settled in Washington Territory to become one of the most important and successful businessmen in Snohomish County during its early years.

Newly married, Alexander Spithill and his lovely bride Anastasia were living at the Tulalip Indian Agency on the Tulalip Indian Reservation in 1870. Alexander was an employee of the U.S. government at the agency that year.

With her freckles and light colored skin, Anastasia showed little sign of her American Indian heritage—a heritage well documented because of the importance of her family. As a child Anastasia lived with her grandfather, Snah-talc, or as he was commonly referred to, Chief Bonaparte. Snah-talc (1782-1874), sub-chief to the Snohomish Indians and a prominent resident of what would become Snohomish County, was a signatory to Mukilteo’s 1855 Point Elliott Treaty between the United States and the Duwamish, Suquamish, and allied and subordinate tribes of Indians in Washington Territory.

Now we come to the strange happening with the 1870 decennial census record. In our time, most people certainly know the correct location of Tulalip. However, years ago, this evidently was not the case. When the placement of the Tulalip Indian Agency was indexed by our government and then used by other repositories, the agency was misplaced, or more correctly, we are mis-directed.

Father Casimir Eugene Chirouse, OMI
Father Casimir Eugene Chirouse, OMI

Oh, no, not Mason County again? The specter of the 1860 census seems to hang over us!   Yes, that is exactly where you will find Tulalip in the indexing. It is under Mason County’s listing you will find the prominent Spithill family, as well as the equally well-known Charles Finkbonner family; and even the missionary priest, Father Casimir Eugene Chirouse. In fact, all the 24 unsuspecting souls living at the Tulalip Indian Agency are shown as citizens of Mason County, Washington Territory, not Snohomish County where they belong. It is not the census record that is the problem; it is the indexing which is sometimes difficult to maneuver. It is always a relief to find that the people you are searching for are right where they actually belong—not really lost forever—just misplaced.

St. Anne Catholic Mission Church, Mission Beach, Tulalip Indian Reservation, about 1870.
St. Anne Catholic Mission Church, Mission Beach, Tulalip Indian Reservation, about 1870.

It should be noted that since the native people were wards of our government and did not pay taxes, those who lived on the Tulalip Indian Reservation were not included in this census. It wasn’t until a special Indian census schedule was completed in 1880 that their names and information were recorded by our government.

Luckily, there doesn’t appear to be any problem with the next decennial census in reference to Snohomish County. In fact for genealogists, the federal census for the year 1880 is a blessing. It was the first year the individuals in each family listing were given an identity so we could finally verify their relationship in the family.

Of course, if you are familiar with genealogy and the census records you know what happened to the 1890 decennial record. 1890 was the most comprehensive of all the census records to that date, and we lost it to a fire at the Commerce Department in Washington, D.C. in 1921. Only fragments were left. What made that particular census so important was in 1890 each family was enumerated on a separate sheet of paper—the only year it was done. Even though the government did not plan the federal census records as a genealogical tool, most of us have accepted them as just that, and we all mourn the loss of that important end-of-the-century 1890 census record.

If you haven’t caught the bug to find “who you are” you are missing a great road trip. Along the way you could find some jewels and perhaps, just like I did, you may even find a scoundrel.

— By Betty Lou Gaeng

A long-time resident of Lynnwood, Betty Lou Gaeng is a genealogist, historian, researcher and writer who is active in volunteer work for Lynnwood’s Heritage Park Partners Advisory Committee and the Alderwood Manor Heritage Association at Heritage Park. She is also a member of the League of Snohomish County Heritage Organizations (LOSCHO) and the South County Historical Society and Museum.  Gaeng is the author of two books: “Etched in Stone,” which is the history of the Edmonds Museum memorial monument, and “Chirouse” about a Catholic missionary priest who came from France to Washington Territory in 1847 and became a father figure and friend to the Puget Sound area’s Native people.

  1. I , too, thoroughly enjoy this article and am saving all of them to be used for historical and research purposes. Thanks again! sarai

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