Census Records: Stories of People and Places

2020 brings another iteration of the United States census, an event that happens every ten years to gather information about the American population. While the census is of crucial importance for determining services for communities, it also serves as a rich resource for historical and sociological research. Census records can show both macro-level trends through the patterns of change within entire communities, as well as micro-level trends by showing the details about one family, or even one individual, through time. Here, we’ll take a quick journey through 150 years of the census to see the story of Glastenbury, Vermont and a family who lived there for generations.

If the name Glastenbury sounds familiar, it may be because of the mysterious disappearances of several individuals that occurred in the mid-twentieth century. But that’s not the part of the story we’re telling here (though, if you must know more, try searching for the term “Bennington Triangle”). This tale begins in 1761, when Glastenbury was first chartered as a New Hampshire grant. Unfortunately for the grantees, the area was “one of the roughest and most inaccessible towns in the state,” as described by Child’s Gazetteer and Business Directory for Bennington County. This fact is probably why the town was so sparsely settled for its entire history – Glastenbury’s population peaked in 1870 at 119 residents.

The first page of the 1870 US Census for Glastenbury. The population peaked for the town in this year. From Ancestry.com.

There are some clues as to why the population increased, and later decreased, when you look at the occupations listed in the census. In 1870, most Glastenbury residents were farmers, but 50% of the male population was involved with the lumber industry, listed as woodchoppers, sawyers, or lumbermen. Lumbering was a big industry for Vermont, coming to its peak around the same time as Glastenbury’s population. However, as more land was clear cut there were fewer lumbering jobs, and the census shows a steadily declining population.  By the 1920 census, only 41 residents were listed; 45% of the male population still worked in the town’s lumber camp. And most of those men were temporary boarders, not settling in the town. By 1930, the population had plummeted to 7 people, then to 4 people in 1940. All of those residents were members of one family, the Mattisons.

1940 US Census for Glastenbury. The population decreased to just four residents. From Ancestry.com.
Vermont State Senator Norman Mattison of Glastenbury (1851-1913). From Vermont: It’s Government by William H. Jeffrey, 1913, pg. 37.

The Mattisons lived in Glastenbury for at least a century. They first appear on the Glastenbury census in 1850, and for the previous decades in the neighboring (and more populous) town of Shaftsbury. In 1850, John Mattison was the head of one household in Glastenbury, and by the following census of 1860, his son Norman had been born. Norman Mattison spent his entire life in Glastenbury and was a prominent member of Bennington County society. He served in many government roles, including as Bennington County’s state senator and Glastenbury’s town clerk. He married Abigail “Angelia” McDonald in 1874, just around the time of Glastenbury’s population boom. Angelia had also been born in Glastenbury, and her own family appears on the census as far back as 1820. Together, Norman and Angelia raised several children and you can trace them through the decades using the census, as they have families of their own and become neighbors to their parents. Norman died of a sudden illness in 1913, and Angelia continued to live in Glastenbury for thirty more years. After she was widowed, she lived with her son Ira, and his family. By 1930, there are only two households that appear on the Glastenbury census with just 7 residents between them, all of the Mattison family. Ira Mattison clearly followed in his father’s footsteps as he is listed as the Glastenbury town clerk and treasurer on the 1930 census. But, by 1940, Ira has passed, and there is only one single household enumerated in the entire town – the widow Angelia Mattison, age 81, her daughter-in-law, and two grandsons. Glastenbury was disincorporated in 1937 and has been an unorganized place ever since. An unorganized place means that it does not have its own town government, instead relying on a governor-appointed supervisor to deal with taxes and other governance. In 2010, census data shows only eight residents in the former town of Glastenbury.

US census records are available for research up to 1940 through Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org and the 1950 census records will be opened to the public in 2022. However, more recent census data is searchable through the US Census Bureau’s website: https://data.census.gov/cedsci/. There are many more stories that can be told about Glastenbury beyond this brief overview, and it will be exciting to see how those stories continue to unfold when the 1950 census is available. And, right now, we can make our own history by filling out the 2020 census. You can learn more at: https://www.uvm.edu/crs/2020-census-vermont.

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