Benjamin Bursley. Farmer. Real estate valued at $600. Personal estate value $100. Cool. One small problem.
When first reviewing the info contained on the 1860 Federal Census for Monticello, Wright County, Minnesota, it didn’t really mean anything to me. I had no idea how Benjamin’s estate compared to 2014 income standards, nor how his family fared compared to those living around him. Was he rich? Was he poor? Somewhere in between? I wanted to know what life was like for his 12 year old daughter, Lavina, and placing her family in context with the era in which she lived was important to answer my questions.
Using a spreadsheet (Numbers, on my Mac) I transcribed the names, occupations, real estate and personal estate values for all individuals who had this info listed on the census:
Thankfully, it was a relatively small town with only 19 pages of census data, and of those, only a few adults (mostly males) with real estate per page. Transferring this info helped to truly analyze and appreciate the neighbors of my subject, Benjamin Bursley, and painted a clear picture of the types of services the town had available. Not surprising, most were farmers, but the town also had farriers, clergymen, carpenters, coopers, and others too. Martin Fox, a merchant, had the second highest real estate and personal estate listed, at $3,000 and $3,500 respectively. The town’s wealthiest citizen was farmer Zadoe Brown, with real estate valued at $5,000, and a personal estate of $3,000.
The neat part about using a spreadsheet is it can do the math for you. Numbers told me that the average reported real estate in Monticello in 1860 was $1,356, with the average personal estate at $405.
Well, darn. Benjamin’s $600 real estate and $100 personal estate didn’t look quite so great any more. To strengthen this realization was a statement found on a letter drafted by the townsmen to the Secretary of War in June 1863. Found in the compiled service record of Benjamin’s son, the townsmen were urging the Secretary of War to release Benjamin’s son John from service as the family was in “indigent circumstances.”
Rats. Things were pretty darn tough for young Lavina, my great-great grandmother. Looking beyond the single page of census data really helped to paint a clearer picture of what challenges she faced growing up in 1860. And made me appreciate her even more.