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Kearney , Nebraska in 1880
A census look at one city

by: Donavan N. Johnston

            If you were to walk down a street of a town what kind of people would you see.  Would you see young, middle aged or older citizens?  What ethnicities would they be?  Could you tell if they were from somewhere in the United States?  On the other hand, could you tell they come from overseas? If they come from overseas, would they speak a language that was not familiar to you?  How would you interact with them, or would you interact with them? The makeup of a town can dictate how those who encounter the town perceive it.  If the town is an upright moral society, people who pass by will perceive the town as being just and fair to all those who enter the town.  On the other hand, if a town is lawless and out of control, people would avoid the town and tell other not head near the town.

A census can tell us a lot about the makeup of a town.  From the age of the people, to the history of where the people came from and what they are doing for work in the city they live in.  The United States Constitution dictates that that the federal government takes a census every ten years. In 1880, the administration took a census and it came during a crossroads in American culture and life.  It had been fifteen years since General Robert E. Lee had surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant.  It had been also fifteen years since the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.  The 1880 census was also the first one taken after the end of reconstruction in the south.  The people were emerging from the civil war that had torn them apart and they were still holding on too those feelings they had from the war.  The people were also getting married and having kids who never experienced the war and its destructive nature.  In 1880, there was land still to have and the prospect of finding a home and making it your own by taming the land.  It was not the first census taken after the freeing of the blacks in the south, yet it was the first in which the Republicans would shield them with protection[1].

The city of Kearney incorporated in 1871, is a commercial, manufacturing, and distribution center for a rich grain- and livestock-producing area. Manufactures include motor-vehicle parts, farm equipment, and rubber products. Settled at a railroad junction in 1871, the city’s name, with an added “e,” comes from Fort Kearny, a nearby U.S. Army outpost used from 1848 to 1881 to protect persons following the Oregon and Mormon Trails[2].

If you take the 1880 census and look at fifty families from the Kearney, you can catch a glimpse into what the makeup of the city was seven years after the town’s foundation.  In looking at the census, three major areas give you an idea about the people of Kearney.  From exploring the age makeup to the background of the people or looking at the type of work the people did, the city of Kearney has its foundations and makes it that it is.  All fifty families had different ages, backgrounds and people who did jobs or tasks in their family.  The fifty that I chose to look at were by random for picking of one person’s family and then going twelve families above and twelve families below them, then repeating the process for another twenty-five families in the Kearney area.  There was no consideration to names or places, nor was there any picking and looking at one street in the Kearney area.  By examining fifty families we can gain incite into what who made Kearney what it was in 1880.

The first area that you can look at is the age of the people. In the first set of twenty-five families, there are 146 people among them.  They have a combined life of over 3400 years.  While this number appears that most of the people would be old, the average age of a person living in this group of families came out to be 23 years and four months.  In the second set of families, the total number of people was actually smaller with having only 111 people.  Their combined age was also smaller with a little over 2400 years of life experience among them.  This group age was also younger then the first family with an average age of 21 years and ten months.  What is interesting is that people in both groups had adults in their 50’s and 60’s, yet with the influx of young families with multiple children under the age of ten, the average age of each family was actually young.  The combined average for these two sets of people comes around 22 years and eight months.  While this is very interesting, the number can tell you more about the break down in average male age and average female age.  The combined average male age for the fifty families is 23 years and eight months.  The combined female age for these families is 21 years and six months[3].

Another item you can look at with the family is the size of these families.  In the first set of twenty-five families, the average size of a family was 5.84 people, with an average of 3.28 males and 2.56 females.  In the second set of twenty-five families, the average family size was 4.44 people with 2.28 males and 2.16 females.  In both sets of families, there is a small amount of people per family.  This correlates the average age of the families.  The average age of the families was young, and the size of the families were small, it can be determined that the people living in the Kearney area in 1880 were young new families and came out to Nebraska to get a start in life with their new families[4].

The second area that you can look at to gain an incite into the makeup of an area can come from the background of the people.  In the 1880 United States Federal Census, they took record of where the people came from and where their parents came from.  This birthplace shows the background makeup of the people and that they all did not come from one area.  In the fifty combined families with their total of 257 people.  Of these people, 32 of them were born in the state of Ohio.  This was the plurality of places but was not the only one place the people called their birthplace.  The second largest state people claimed as their birthplace was Nebraska with 30 people having been born here. The state of Illinois had 22 people claim it as their birthplace, with New York state having 21 people claim it as their birth state, and 20 people from Pennsylvania claiming that as their place where they were born.  People came from other places, yet these five states had the majority of people where they came from[5]

In 1880, there were people who were not born in the United States living in the Kearney area.  Out of the 257 people, 17 were born in Sweden.  There was also four people from the Germanic regions in Europe claimed that as their birthplace.  There were also three Canadians, and two people from Denmark living in Kearney in 1880 that came from their lands[6].

So what does this tell about where the people who were living in Kearney?  The fast majority of the people did not start living in Nebraska, and therefore were not first generation Nebraskans.  Yes, 30 people did come from Nebraska, yet if you look at the census, the average age of those people is less than 10 years of age.  Those 30 people were the start of the first generation Nebraskans.  There is also another feature that most of the people who lived in Kearney in 1880 came from the North.  In fact only eight people claimed they were born in former slave states, with three people from Virginia, two from Kentucky, two from Missouri and one from Mississippi.

The foreign-born population tells us also about what type of people live here in Kearney in 1880.  The influence of the Swedish culture in the Kearney area is not prevalent today as is was then.  Yet in these fifty families, there are seventeen people that who before coming to Kearney, were born in Sweden. There are other European groups that made up the population of Kearney during this time, including Germans, Danish, English, and Scottish citizens.  These people numbers were not as great as the Swedes, but did help into making Kearney its own melting pot of people[7].

In looking at a person’s birthplace, you can also look at and examine where their parents came from. One of the first items that stand out is that none of the people in these fifty families is second generation Nebraskans.  The majority of their parents came from three states of Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania.  All three states rank in the highest, but for the mother birthplace Pennsylvania is the top place where they came from, with Ohio the second most likely spot and New York the third most likely spot.  Some of the citizens of Kearney do have parents that were born not in the United States.  Among the places that the parents came from outside of the United States, include Sweden, Canada, England, the Germanic regions, Scotland, and Spain.  Finally, there are three people that their parent’s birthplace is unknown.  This could come from that, they are orphans and have no know who their parents are, or they did not remember their parents[8].

The parents of these citizens of Kearney come from many diverse areas.  Again is examining the parent’s birthplace there are some noticeable similarities in relations to the citizen’s birthplace. Most of the citizen’s parents came from the North from non slave states.  Even outside of the three top areas, the parents of the citizens also came from Indiana, Vermont, Massachusetts and Illinois.  While their numbers are not that of the Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania size, the citizen of Kearney did have influence from other Northern states.  There was also influence from southern state.  Parents of the citizens came from six former slave states, and four former confederate states. Again, the numbers are small, but the people living here could have brought their family values with them, and old feelings.  Combined with the European decedents, the area of Kearney was a culturally diverse area[9].

Now that we have examined the age and family makeup of these fifty families, and have examined where they and their parents came from, it ask the question: What did they do for work in the Kearney Area? The 1880 census again proved the information on their jobs.  The census recorded the husband and wife’s occupation, and it included if a child was in school.  If there was no information given, then the recorder left it blank. There are many blanks in the fifty families.

In 1880, the city of Kearney is a relatively new area.  It is not surprising then to find that out of the fifty families, thirteen men worked as carpenters to build new housing and buildings.  These men were heads of their households and worked as carpenters to make a living for their families.  The next highest profession came from the laborers and farmers.  Neither of these occupations is out of the ordinary.  Laborers were need to help fill in with workers and to perform odd jobs.  Most of the laborers were not the head of a household. Instead, they were living with a family to help the father in his work.  Farming was also an occupation that actually had they same amount, six, of workers as the laborers.  The farmers were out trying to break the ground and grow food for sell to the community.  Typically, from the census these men were heads of their households.  In these fifty families, there was also the city marshal, a schoolteacher, a physician and three lawyers with their one law office clerk[10].

The women of the families were not excluding from working.  While there was no female lawyers or physician in these fifty families there were other occupations for the women.  In 1880, there must have been at least one school, because there was a female schoolteacher living with the families.  It is not known if she worked with the male schoolteacher, however they most likely knew of each other. Another occupation that females preformed in is dressmaking.  This could have been clothing making or just dressmaking. A third type of occupation that appeared common in the fifty families is that of servant.  This is not a slave servant, because the United State constitution prohibited slavery after 1860’s[11].  It is most likely these servants, most over the age of 18 and fewer than 25, worked as nannies or house cleaner.  One final job appeared in forty-eight of the fifty families.  Keeping house is not a paying occupation, yet the census taker called it the head of household’s wife position[12].

Fifty families do not make an absolute picture of what the makeup of a city was like back in 1880.  There were families from different ages, backgrounds and occupation that made the city of Kearney what it was during its foundation.  However, these fifty families can give us a glimpse into what it was like to walk down the streets of Kearney during this time.  If you were to walk down the street you would see young and old, and from this census, you would see younger to middle age, then older citizen. You would also might be about to hear English, Swedish, German and Danish spoken among the people.  These people would not be second generation Nebraskan, yet if they had children with them the child might be a first generation Nebraskan.  They could also be Swedish or German or Scottish.  If you follow the people to their work, one might go in as a carpenter, another the man who took your bags off the rail train, or if she was female she might be out buying items to keep her house clean. The makeup of the town can tell a lot about how the citizens of the town interact and would allow you to get to know them. You might come away knowing that the people that have come from different areas and of different ages decided for them to strike out on their own and try something in a new land full of opportunities.


[1] Ginsberg, Benjamin We the People an introduction to American Politics (W.W. Norton & Company Inc, New York, New York: 1999) pg A10

[2] Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th ed., s.v. “Kearney, Nebraska”

[3] 1880 Federal Census FHL Film 1254743  National Archives Film T9-0743     Page 250A-251C,255D-257C   

[4] 1880 Federal Census

[5] 1880 Federal Census

[6] 1880 Federal Census

[7] 1880 Federal Census

[8] 1880 Federal Census

[9] 1880 Federal Census

[10] 1880 Federal Census

[11] Ginsberg, A19

[12] 1880 Federal Census