A different kind of census

Enumerating the children

It goes without saying that the United States censuses, taken every 10 years, are among the most valuable genealogical records that can be found for those of us who call some corner of this country home. The population schedules, slave schedules, agricultural and mortality schedules — they all go such a long way towards helping us find and trace our families throughout this country’s history.

And gaps in the federal census reports are often delightfully filled in by state censuses, frequently enumerated in years when the federal census was not taken, such as the Alabama State Censuses of 1855 and 1866, the California State Census of 1852, the Minnesota State Censuses of 1865, 1875, 1885, 1895 and 1905; and the Wisconsin State Censuses of 1855, 1865, 1875, 1885, 1895 and 1905, just to name a few.

But those population schedules? They’re not all the censuses that are out there. State laws often required different kinds of enumerations for different reasons.

Case in point: the South Dakota school census.

Starting at least as early as 1897, South Dakota law required the clerk of each school board to “take census of the children of legal school age in his district and file the same with the county superintendent on or before the first Monday of June in each year.”1 By 1907, the statute had been changed to require the clerk “to take the census of all children under twenty-one and over six years of age, residing in the district.”2

Some of these school census records are available online at FamilySearch, and they tell stories that just can’t be told quite the same way through any other records.

In 1913, River School District No. 14 in Walworth County, South Dakota, reported 12 students, four boys and eight girls, in four families:

     • Bert Benskin, 18, male
     • Harley Benskin, 11, male
     • Elsie Benskin, 14, female
     • Herbet Smith, 16, male
     • Jennie Smith, 14, female
     • Addie Smith, 12, female
     • Mable Smith, 7, female
     • Etta Byrne, 12, female
     • Burnice Byrne, 10, female
     • Edith Byrne, 8, female
     • Myron Byrne, 6, male
     • Violet Wilson, 7, female

The Benskin children were identified as children of Joe Benskin of Selby, South Dakota; the Smiths as children of Richard Smith of Selby; the Byrnes as children of Tom Byrne of Selby; and the Wilson child as the daughter of W. Wilson of Le Beau. And the clerk? Mrs. Joe Benskin.3

But the Benskins must have moved sometime over the year that followed. An undated census form that appears to be for 1914 (judging from the ages of most of the children) shows a lot of change as families moved in or out of the district and younger children joined their older siblings:

     • Etta Byrnes, 16, female
     • Burnice Byrnes, 12, female
     • Nellie Byrnes, 6, female
     • Edith Byrnes, 9, female
     • Myron Byrnes, 7, male
     • Herbert Smith, 17, male
     • Jennie Smith, 15, female
     • Addie Smith, 13, female
     • Mable Smith, 8, female
     • Lullu Smith, 6, female
     • Lewis Imm, 9, male
     • Violet Wilson, 8, female
     • Howard Wilson, 6, male
     • Lelu Byers, 13, female
     • John Byers, 19, male4

There was much less change between 1914 and 1915, just one younger sibling joining his older brother and sisters — and a bit of odd age changing from the prior year:

     • Lela Byers, 11, female
     • John Byers, 20, male
     • Etta Byrnes, 15, female
     • Burnice Byrnes, 13, female
     • Nellie Byrnes, 7, female
     • Edith Byrnes, 10, female
     • Miron Byrnes, 8, male
     • Herbet Smith, 18, male
     • Jennie Smith, 16, female
     • Addie Smith, 14, female
     • Mable Smith, 9, female
     • Lulla Smith, 7, female
     • Herrold Smith, 6, male
     • Viola Wilson, 8, female
     • Howard Wilson, 6, male
     • Lewis Imm, 10, male5

The Smiths must have moved during the year that followed, as the school census nosedived even with younger siblings being recorded:

     • Etta Byrnes, 16, female
     • Burnice Byrnes, 14, female
     • Nellie Byrnes, 8, female
     • Edith Byrnes, 11, female
     • Miron Byrnes, 9, male
     • Robert Byrnes, 6, male
     • Lewis Imm, 11, male
     • Julius Imm, 6, male
     • Viola Wilson, 9, female
     • Howard Wilson, 7, male
     • Lela Byers, 15, female
     • Willie Wendt, 6, male6

This kind of detail, on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood, year-by-year basis, is awfully hard to come by … and wonderful when it exists. All thanks to one single statute.

By the way, South Dakota wasn’t the only state with a required school census. A report by the U.S. Census Office, as it was then called, in 1890, noted that four states had school censuses even then: California (all children under 17 years of age, only those 5-17 for school purposes); Florida (all children aged 4-21); Montana (all children over age 4 and under age 21); and West Virginia (all children 6-16 and all children 16-21 separately enumerated).7

And a search of the Family History Library catalog using the key words “school census” returned 1275 entries. Not all of them are actually school census records… but there are enough — the first, oh, 200 or 300 records — to keep us all working and smiling for an awfully long time to come.

Let’s see here… School census, 1894-1899, 1903-1905 Metcalfe County (Kentucky). School census records, 1950-1984 Taylor County (Iowa). Texas, Matagorda County, Scholastic census records, 1923-1946. Scholastic census and annual reports, 1883-1925 Harvey County (Kansas).

Excuse me for a while. I’m busy…


  1. Laws of 1897, chapter 57, in Edwin L. Grantham, Statutes of the State of South Dakota, embracing the General Laws in force Jan. 1, 1899, § 2469 (Chicago : E.B. Myers & Co., 1899), 755; digital images, Google Books (http://books.google.com : accessed 4 Nov 2012).
  2. The School Laws of South Dakota, § 99 (Pierre, S.D. : Capital Supply Co., 1915), 37; digital images, Google Books (http://books.google.com : accessed 4 Nov 2012).
  3. Walworth County, South Dakota, River School District No. 14, School Census, 1 May 1913; “South Dakota, School Records, 1884-1938,” database and digital images, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org: accessed 4 Nov 2012).
  4. Walworth County, South Dakota, River School District No. 14, School Census, undated but likely 1914; “South Dakota, School Records, 1884-1938,” database and digital images, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org: accessed 4 Nov 2012).
  5. Walworth County, South Dakota, River School District No. 14, School Census, 21 June 1915; “South Dakota, School Records, 1884-1938,” database and digital images, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org: accessed 4 Nov 2012).
  6. Walworth County, South Dakota, River School District No. 14, School Census, 23 May 1916; “South Dakota, School Records, 1884-1938,” database and digital images, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org: accessed 4 Nov 2012).
  7. James H. Blodgett, Report on Education in the United States at the Eleventh Census: 1890 (Washington, D.C. : Govt. Printing Office, 1893), 10; digital images, Google Books (http://books.google.com : accessed 4 Nov 2012).
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20 Responses to A different kind of census

  1. Oxa Whitney says:

    North Dakota also had school censuses (1905-1941). Nice.

  2. Jana Last says:

    Oh wow! This is wonderful information! I wasn’t aware of these school census records. Thanks so much!

  3. Anne Willson says:

    Now if they just have some in my towns…

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Tell me about it… I’m still looking for my Cottrell cousins and hoping they were sent to school in Walworth County…

  4. Sharon Meeker says:

    Kentucky also had school censuses in the 1890′s and early 1900′s. I have found them for several counties I have worked on, but don’t know if they exist for all counties.

  5. Kat says:

    Mississippi calls this listing “Educable Children.” Not all years are available for all counties. The Mississippi Department of Archives and History has most of these records. They can be accessed at the Archives; some of them are on the Archives web site. FamilySearch.org has also placed some of them on their web site. They have been very useful for persons who may not have a birth certificate.

  6. Denise Griffith says:

    Herbet Smith, 18, male
    • Jennie Smith, 16, female
    • Addie Smith, 14, female
    • Mable Smith, 9, female
    • Lulla Smith, 7, female IT’s LULA SHE born as Lulu
    • Herrold Smith, 6, male Misspelt it’s Harold
    Lula was my Grandma
    She and her 5 siblings moved down to Lyman Co. SD near VIVIAN SD
    Most all of these are buried in the Vivian Cemetery.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      That’s wonderful to know that your family is in those records, Denise! Your grandmother’s name is clearly recorded as “Lullu” in the census that’s likely from 1914. In the 1915 census, it looks to me like the last letter was written as an A, but I could certainly be wrong about that. In any case, there’s plenty of evidence that these folks are your kin, and that’s terrific!

      • Denise Griffith says:

        Thanks Judy

        I sure did not have good luck with my grandpa’s Grandma
        re: my 2 times great Grandma.
        I even “hired a genealogy assistant”
        It seems I have kinfolk who could not spell right.
        or the name Heard wrong. LOL
        Well nice meeting you. Glad I found this site.
        I am about sick of FamilySearch. and Find a Grave.
        also Spelling is not at important as the knowing that the relative lived and where they lived at. Cheerio

        • Judy G. Russell says:

          Spelling sure wasn’t the strong point in the past (and won’t be in the future with our kids all using texting shortcuts!). Glad you found your relatives’ records anyway.

  7. Denise Griffith says:

    Yes indeed. too much texting grr
    Also the Byrnes family up there in Walworth Co. SD were Cousins with my Grandma and her siblings. Bynes wife[s] and my Great grandfather were siblings
    They all made it over from Lanark, Carroll Co. Illinois. Herb and Jenny were born in Illinois. My Mom and grandma both write family historys plus I heard this as a kid.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      That’s great stuff, Denise. My great Uncle John Cottrell was a Trail City resident for most of his adult life. His children Mattie and Philip went to school in Walworth.

  8. Denise Griffith says:

    That is pretty cool Judy. On my Dad’s side some of his nephew’s kid live around Walworth so probably went to school there.

  9. Denise Griffith says:

    Question: Besides South Dakota and Kentucky have school Census records, what others states did? I am most interested in Iowa Illinois and Wisconsin ones.
    Mahalo (Thank-You)

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      How these were taken, when and what form varied greatly from state to state. I know that in Iowa, there was a school census as part of the 1895 state census, for example. Checking with the archives of each state should give you a good overview of what your specific states did, when, and where the records might be today.

  10. Denise Griffith says:

    Good Thanks

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