Census Question/white/mulatto/indian?

+6 votes
In researching census records, I've noticed that many of my ancestors are marked as white on one record, mulatto on another, and indian on yet a different one.  How are I supposed to know exactly what race they are.  I'm pretty sure they are Indian but am a bit confused as to why they are marked so many different ways.  I'm assuming that many of the census enumerators just looked at them and marked what they thought was the appropriate race instead of asking.

Has anyone else run into this problem while researching?  How did you handle it?
in Policy and Style by Living Frazier G2G5 (5.1k points)
recategorized by Keith Hathaway
I guess the best way to reconcile the question is to find a birth certificate listing race. Otherwise, I just go by the race of the parents or grand-parents. I've had this problem a few times. Most of my situations were easily solved by finding the race of the parents.

Good luck.
I for one just don't even bother with the race question. I just do net see the importance for it. As long as the parent child relationship can be at least confident then everything else is of secondary importance at least.
That is the first thing I thought of as well and am running into the same issues.  When I find the parents, they are listed all kinds of ways as well.  For example, my 2nd great grandfather is listed on various census records as black, white, and mulatto.  Same goes for his wife and children.  I've been searching for a birth record for him but so far have been unable to find one.  I guess I'll keep searching.
No I don"t think it was that. I noticed that my native ancestors were also listed as white on census. I spoke to a Creek Chief about why this would happen, He advised  that it was done  by the natives themselves because the government would pay bounty money of 100.00 dollars for the head of an indian. The chief indicated that this law was on the books until mid 1940s. They did this to pass as white so they would have all the rights of a white person.
I have never heard of this! That is horrifying!  I don't blame them!  Had I been in that situation, I would have done the same.  Wow!

3 Answers

+2 votes
Best answer
The Race Question and United States Censuses... Here is the answer for the "Western States" formerly "New Spain" then "New Mexico", then U.S. territories.

The short answer is there were only two "races" until after 1940 - there was "White" and then there was "Colored" (meaning "Black" or "Negro"). This is why no one knows exactly how many Mexicans/Hispanics/Latin Americans served during WWI and WWII.  

On my profiles, I do not list the race according to Census Information. I only list the names, ages, birth years, relationships, birth places (if they vary from census to census and if I do not have records that state actual birth place).

The Treaty of Hidalgo and Gadsden Purchase that ended the Mexican-American War and "finalized" the border between the USA and Mexico had a number of clauses that the USA agreed to grant (but never really enforced). In the agreement - all Mexican Nationals living on land that was ceded to the USA (Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Utah, Nevada, Colorado, etc. ) were to be "classed" and treated as equals to "whites" in regard to land ownership and voting rights.  This was because slavery had not yet been abolished. So, by law Census Enumerators were to write "W" or "White" on the Censuses. Some Enumerators took extra liberties to ensure that the U.S. Government was aware of who was "Mexican", "Mulatto", or "Octoroon" by writing these words in the margins of the censuses. "Mulatto" was actually an Indigenous Tribe of Northern Mexico. "Octoroon" could be as well also, however, my late grandma always told me that "mulatto" and "octoroon" was derogatory with the same connotations as "nigger". Octoroon could also be a variation of "Maroon" as in the "Maroon Seminoles", a "clan" or "sect" of Seminoles with African and Native American DNA (bi-racial and tri-racial when they married "whites" or "mestizos") who emigrated to Mexico between 1847-1851.

As for Native Americans being classed as "white" is because Native Americans were not "American" Citizens until  1924 (with some exceptions-Native American men who fought in World War I were granted U.S. Citizenship). Some people who had Native American DNA and "White DNA" chose not to "claim" their Native American heritage or self-identify at the time of the Dawes Census because they would lose their rights as American citizens.

From time-to-time, one will see "Mestizo" or "Mestiza" and this is the correct "term" for most Mexicans. Of course, there are variations of "mestizo". There are Euro-Mestizos meaning Spanish, French, German (Northern European) and Indigenous Tribes of Mexico (Blanca/o Mexicana/o or Blanca as in Spaniard or no "Indian"). Then there are Afro-mestizos. But in Mexico, for the most part, everyone is just "Mexican" or (La Raza).

In the Northern States, a dark skinned Mexican might have been classed as "Negro" or "Black" on a marriage license or census.
by Living Guerra G2G3 (3.6k points)
edited by Living Guerra
+3 votes
Amy, I simply list what was recorded on each census. Just the facts, ma'am.

If you want to include a notation about their ethnic origin, you could simply state that "the census records, combined, suggest a mixed ethnic origin as they were enumerated as white (census year), mulatto (census year), and [American] Indian (census year). This is supported by oral tradition in the family."

As for the reasons they appear differently from year to year, you might want to dig into instructions for census enumerators for each of the given years.
by Jillaine Smith G2G6 Pilot (817k points)
+1 vote
I have a hard time believing that the US government was paying money for the heads of unsuspecting Indians. What I do know is that there were many states that were extremely racist in their laws. Virginia in particular was very harsh on anyone who had "Indian blood". People who could, said they were white to avoid discrimination.  So if your ancestors could claim to be white and denied their Indian or African ancestry it's probably so that they could get a better job, send their kids to better schools....etc.
by Jeanie Roberts G2G6 Pilot (128k points)

Scalping During the French and Indian War - Archiving Early America


Accounts of the French and Indian War describe many incidents of scalping: ...a ... 1755, Massachusetts Governor William Shirley offered £40 for Indian male scalps and ... war and proclaimed a general bounty for Indian enemy prisoners and for scalps. ... The first involved a single Chicasaw (an ally to the English) "who was ...

Scalping In America - Indian Country Media Network


Oct 2, 2017 - In this 1841 print of The Paxton Boys Massacre, the artist put the Paxton ... The Dutch governor of Manhattan, Willem Kieft, offered the first bounty in ... The Massachusetts Bay Colony first offered $60 per Indian scalp in 1703.

The Scalp Industry


Sonora was the first state to enact a scalp bounty law; in 1835, offering 100 pesos ... and children, and Johnson and his troops swarmed into the mass of natives, killing ... and the bounty of one Indian was worth more than many Mexicans or Anglos ... Don Angel Trias of Chihuahua put out a $9000 reward on the chief of the ...

The Rhetoric and Practice of Scalping - Journal of the American ...


Sep 1, 2016 - Accusations of scalping emerged as early as the first engagement of the war at Lexington and Concord. ... Thomas Gage, the royal governor of Massachusetts and .... pounds for the scalps of Penobscot Indians, while the Deputy Governor of ... bounty payments, which he received after being arrested, put on ...

100,000 California Indians killed during Gold Rush genocide - Charles ...


May 11, 2016 - “In 1850, California's first governor, Peter Burnett, announced the state's ... and $10 to $25 for proof of executed Indiansscalps, heads, hands, or bodies.” “California's first bond of $400,000 was issued in 1854, to fund the bounty on ... remotely comparable to this massive orgy of theft and mass murder.

Thriller: Ghosts of the Dark Sky Bogs and Barrens - Google Books Result


Peter Moss - 2010

The Dutch governor of the Manhattan colony offered the first ''scalp bounty''. ... The village was set fire, and 500 Indian residents were put to the sword. ... The European colonists declared Thanksgiving Days to celebrate mass murder, the ...

I stand corrected.

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