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Interpreting Census Data on Slavery

Introduction

Americans have completed a census every 10 years since this nation began. Censuses help government officials better understand the makeup of the nation, which in turn helps them establish congressional districts, allocate funding, and create more effective policies and programs. Census data is available online and can be useful in the classroom for teaching chart and map analysis skills, math concepts, and U.S. history.

In the years slavery was legal in this country, the census recorded the enslaved population of each state. In this lesson, students will use census data and maps relating to the enslaved population and the U.S. population as a whole to answer questions about population density, migration patterns, and the changing nature of slavery in the United States from 1790 to 1830.

Objectives

In this lesson, students:

  • Analyze data from the U.S. census records
  • Read and interpret charts
  • Read and interpret population density maps
  • Describe the density and migration patterns of the U.S. population between 1790-1830
  • Describe the density and migration patterns of the U.S. enslaved population between 1790-1830
  • Hypothesize causes for changes in population density in regions

Materials

Strategy

  1. Explain that the United States was growing and changing between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. Ask students how a country changes in almost a hundred years.
  2. Tell students that over time, the population of the country grows and changes. Between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, population growth and movement had a large impact on the lives of the enslaved. By looking at census data and population density maps, we can better understand these changes and their impact.
  3. Pass out the Interpreting Census Data worksheet.
  4. Display the U.S. Population Density Maps for 1790, 1810, and 1830 to the class. Ask students to answer question 1.
  5. Have students discuss in small groups with those around them why they think this occurred. Have each group share their thoughts with the class.
  6. Inform students of some key factors in these shifts:
    • a. Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, Louisiana, Indiana, Mississippi, Illinois, Alabama, Missouri, and Maine became states.
      b. In 1800, U.S. federal offices moved from Philadelphia to Washington D.C.
      c. In 1814, the first American textile mill opens in Massachusetts. This is part of the larger trend of Northern industrialization.
  7. Display the Enslaved Population Density Maps for 1790, 1810, and 1830 for the class. Ask students to answer question 2.
  8. Have students discuss in small groups with those around them why they think this occurred. Have each group share their thoughts with the class.
  9. Inform students of some key factors in these shifts:
      a. The cotton gin was invented in 1793 by Eli Whitney. It makes cotton profitable and much less time intensive, increasing the need for slave labor in the cotton growing states of the deep south.
      b. Northern states were practicing gradual emancipation—freeing the children of slaves or enslaved people once they reached a certain age.
      c. Northern states were becoming more and more industrialized. Women and immigrants complemented the labor force.
  10. Distribute the U.S. Census Charts to students. Have students complete the table on their worksheets.
  11. In their groups, have students answer question 3 by calculating and interpreting the percentages. (You may need to lead the class through this, depending on their math skill level.) Ensure that students understand the percentage of enslaved Americans stayed steady during this era. Note that the slave trade officially ended in 1808, although still continued illegally.
  12. In a class discussion, summarize the conclusions drawn on the worksheet. Answer any remaining questions students may have.
  13. Tell students that we still collect census data every 10 years. This data helps the government make policies and programs for today, but it will also help historians in the future understand our current society.

Lesson Extensions

  1. Have students convert the chart from the worksheet into a bar graph. They can either put the states or the years on the x-axis.

  2. Using this site, http://mapserver.lib.virginia.edu/, ask students to look up the slave population in their state (or a state of their choice). Have them record the changes in the enslaved population in a chart and a line graph. 

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