Historical Footprints

by Martha A. Sandweiss

In Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line, I unravel the hidden life of Clarence King, the celebrated western American explorer, who crossed the color line from white to black to marry the woman he loved. For thirteen years, from his marriage in 1888 until his death in 1901, King lived a secret double life as a black Pullman porter named James Todd. His prominent white friends never knew that King had an African-American wife and five mixed-race children. And Ada Copeland, the woman he married, had no idea of her husband’s true identity. Not until King lay dying in 1901, did he disclose his true identity to his wife.

King sought to ensure that no paper trail of his secret life would exist. But most families in late nineteenth-century America left behind some trace in the historical records, and this one was no exception.

The federal census records proved essential to my search. Historians of a certain age will recall the tedium of scrolling through endless microfilm reels of census data. Now the data is digitized and searchable. One can track characters across time. Minor characters spring instantly to life. Broad hypotheses are easily checked. I could quickly calculate, for example, how many Georgia-born African Americans lived in Manhattan in 1880. Not very many. I could then infer that Copeland had exercised a rare sort of ambition in moving north from her native state.

My students initially find census records uninteresting. But they soon see their potential. They can figure out who lived in a particular neighborhood, imagine the languages that would be heard on the street or think about the work places where people spent their days. They can ask hard questions about family structure, gender, and literacy. In short, they can make these historical records speak to individual life stories as well as to larger themes of American history.

Years ago, I approached an academic library to request that they subscribe to, the best and most easily navigated of the proprietary digitized census sites. We don’t buy resources for genealogists, they said. I quickly showed them what academic historians might do with these resources and won them over. Now the librarians are among the database’s biggest fans, and I incorporate census research assignments into many of my undergraduate courses. Students initially get hooked by finding the trace of a grandparent. But they quickly discover that they can become real historical sleuths, as well, able to recover forgotten bits of the past.

Image: Wallace King, Ada and Clarence's son (right) in the family's home, 1950s. Courtesy of Patricia Chacon.

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