1885 Nelson County Census

It has long been a point of aggravation for genealogy researchers that the 1890 census was lost in a tragic fire. The twenty year gap between 1880 and 1900 can trip up even experienced researchers when trying to find families during that time period. However, it is a little known fact that congress provided funds for a mid decade census for 1885, 1895 and 1905. Some states and territories took advantage of this, but many didn’t. Dakota territory conducted a census in the year 1885. After statehood in 1889 North Dakota declined to do an 1895 census but did conduct one in 1905. The 1905 census data has been lost, but the 1885 data is intact for most of the northern section of Dakota Territory and including Nelson County. Unlike some counties in the state, the boundaries of Nelson County have remained the same since this census was conducted and so it is an accurate account of the people who lived here in 1885.

This database is interesting and unique for several different reasons. The census was taken only about three years after settlement of the county began. The St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba rail line (known as the Great Northern Railroad after 1889) extending west from Grand Forks, crossed Nelson County in 1882, when it was extended from Larimore to one mile west of Bartlett and this would have been the event that stimulated the earliest settlement.

The census was taken during the month of June in 1885. The questions asked were the same as for the 1880 US census and so a wealth of information was made available about the makeup of the population here in the formative years. The total population for the county was 3031, 3028 whites and 3 blacks. About half (1407) were foreign born. 1394 were born in the US.

The foreign countries and their numbers were as follows:

Norway 812
Canada 273
Sweden 55
Ireland 41
Germany 37
Denmark 35
England 35
Scotland 7
Russia 7
Tasmania 1
Austria 1

233 of the residents were listed as having been born in Dakota. The overwhelming number of these were children age three and under. There were also some older than that who probably represented children born in other counties before the family moved to Nelson County. The states where the settlers were born were as follows:

Minnesota 307
New York 164
Wisconsin 161
Iowa 127
Illinois 108
Michigan 104
Ohio 88
Pennsylvania 63
Indiana 60
Maine 34
Missouri 30
Massachusetts 26
Kentucky 24
New Jersey 11
Vermont 7
Connecticut 6
Virginia 6
California 5
West Virginia 2
Maryland 2
Kansas 1
North Carolina 1
Nebraska 1
New Hampshire 1
Tennessee 1
Colorado 1

While browsing the census database one can detect the movements of families from state to state by looking at where various children in each family were born. For instance often immigrants from places like Norway settled first in Wisconsin, Iowa, or Minnesota. I suspect this may represent immigrants who found work on farms in those states and then moved on to Dakota Territory in order to get ownership of their own piece of land.

It is also interesting to look at the occupations. There were occupations listed for far fewer than half of the entries. Most of the entries where there were no occupations listed were for wives and children, but there was also a blank space for many men aged twenty and up. When the occupation was listed the vast majority (825) listed farmer or farm laborer. The other occupations listed:

Agent 3
Attorney or lawyer 5
Agt. Telephone operator 1
Blacksmith 9
C E & teacher and farmer 1
Carpenter 3
Carriage painting 1
Caterer 1
Clergyman 3
Clerk 7
County register of deeds 1
Dressmaker 1
Druggest 2
Editor 1
Barber & farmer 1
Dentist & farmer 1
Farmer & hotel 3
Shoemaker & farmer 1
Farmer & townsite owner 1
Flour & feed 1
Hardware & farmer 2
Housekeeper 4
Law agent 1
Lumber agent 1
Lumber business 1
Lumberman 2
Mason 1
Mechanic 9
Merchant 12
Music teacher 1
Physician 4
Printer 1
Real estate 2
Restaurant 1
RR agent 1
RR foreman 1
Saddler & harness 1
Saloon 1
School teacher 3
Servant 18
Wheat buyer 1

The alphabetic index makes it easy to find people by their surnames. However, if you wish to try to separate them into families you should use the numeric index. The numbers on the right side of the page represent the page numbers on which the census data was written down, followed by the line on which each specific entry was made. Entries with the same surname that are on the same page or adjacent pages should represent family groups.

The census did not include data on which part of the county the individuals resided, but because the census taker listed the people in the order they were visited, you can determine which families were neighbors by studying the numeric list. The data from which this database was prepared is from "The Dakota Territory 1885 Census: Nelson and Ramsey Counties" which was prepared by the North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies which had been granted permission for use by the State Historical Society of North Dakota. The above publication was copyrighted in 1995 by NDSU Libraries, and is used here with the consent of Archivist John E. Bye. The entire 1885 Dakota Territory Census can be accessed at this web address: http://library.ndsu.edu/archives/databases/1885-census