Voter registrations, 19th century California style

There is a good side to voter fraud.

No, really.

Would The Legal Genealogist fool you?1

There really is a wonderfully good side to voter fraud.

At least in California, in the 19th century.

You see, when voter fraud is a real problem… or even a perceived possible problem… the Powers That Be tend to do something to crack down. They pass laws, and demand that one thing that all of us genealogists adore with all our hearts: paperwork.

And so it was in California.

In early 1866, the California Legislature was deeply concerned that the enormous influx of people to the Golden State — the population more than tripled between 1849 and 1860 — would lead to real problems in elections there.

So, on on the 19th of March 1866, the Legislature passed “An Act to provide for the registration of the citizens of this State, and for the enrolment in the several election districts of all the legal voters thereof, and for the prevention and punishment of frauds affecting the elective franchise.”2

A mouthful of a name but one that had one key provision as far as genealogical research is concerned. It provided, in § 1, that:

Each of the County Clerks of the several counties of this State, including the City and County of San Francisco, shall, immediately after the passage of this Act, be provided with a suitable book or books, strongly bound, with the necessary ruled columns, and appropriate headings and labels, for the registration, as hereinafter provided, of all the citizens of this State resident in their respective counties, who are, or may be within six months, by reason of continuous residence, legal voters thereof, which book shall be designated, entitled, and known in law as the “Great Register.”3

And what a genealogical gem these “Great Register” volumes are…

The law required that the volumes set out, in separate columns, “the name at full length (without the use of initials) of the person registered; his age, omitting fractions of years; the country of his nativity; his occupation; the particular city, town, township, ward, or district of his residence; if a naturalized foreigner, when, where, and by what Court he was admitted to become a citizen of the United States; also the date of registry,…”4

Take a look, for example, at the first page of the list for July of 1867 for San Diego County — chosen, of course, because that’s where I’ll be this Saturday, September 9, speaking at the San Diego Genealogical Society Fall Seminar at the Marina Village, Captain’s Room, 1936 Quivira Way, San Diego. (Yes, you can still register online, through Thursday.) You can find the printed volumes reproduced on Ancestry and an index on FamilySearch.

In those printed volumes is where you’ll find that Adam Bossung, living in San Diego County, registered on 4 April 1867. He was then 35 years old, a laborer by occupation, and living in Fort Yuma. And he’d been born in Bavaria, so he had to report that he’d been naturalized on 7 October 1856 in San Diego’s First Judicial District Court.5

On that same first page for San Diego County you find the harnessmaker John Compton, age 48, a San Diego resident who registered the same day and who’d been born in Ireland. He reported he’d been naturalized there in San Diego’s First Judicial District Court on 2 September 1866.6

You might expect to look for naturalization records of San Diego County residents in San Diego. But I’m not sure what else would clue you in to where to look for the naturalization record for, say, Andrew Cassidy, also on that same first page.

He registered on 1 December 1866. He listed his occupation as tidal observer, his age as 36, his birthplace as Ireland… and said he’d been naturalized in the District Court in Troy, New York, on 2 July 1846.7 What’s intriguing about that, of course, is that 1866 minus 1846 is 20 years. And Andrew’s reported age of 36 minus 20 years means he was claiming to have been naturalized at the age of 16. That would have to be through his father, not on his own,8 so you’d know to look for another Cassidy there in New York.

As time went on, more and different information had to be recorded in the Great Registers. By 1896, a physical description was included: height; complexion; eye color; hair color; and visible marks and scars including where they were located.9 And the later registers included specific street addresses, whether the person was the proprietor or head of household, and whether he could read and write.10

And when someone left the rolls, the reason was recorded: Edward M. Baker, an Iowa-born fruit merchant, who’d registered on 24 August 1894 had his San Diego registration cancelled on 19 August 1896 because it was “transferred to Los Angeles Co.”11

Women were recorded starting in 1912, the year after the state granted suffrage to women.12

These Great Registers are really great registers… great for genealogical research in every possible way.


SOURCES

  1. The answer is, yes, of course I would… but not on this.
  2. Chapter CCLXV, “An Act to provide for the registration of the citizens of this State, and for the enrolment in the several election districts of all the legal voters thereof, and for the prevention and punishment of frauds affecting the elective franchise,” in The Statutes of California … 1865-6 (Sacramento : O.M. Clayes, State Printer, 1866), 288; digital images, Google Books (http://books.google.com : accessed 4 Sep 2017).
  3. Ibid., § 1, at 288.
  4. Ibid., § 3, at 289.
  5. San Diego County, Entries in Great Register, San Diego County, California, July 1867, entry for Adam Bossung; “California, Voter Registers, 1866-1898,” database and images, Ancestry.com (https://www.ancestry.com : accessed 4 Sep 2017); imaged from Great Registers, 1866–1898, microfilm roll 39; Sacramento, California: California State Library.
  6. Ibid., entry for John Compton.
  7. Ibid., entry for Andrew Cassidy.
  8. See §4, “An Act to establish an uniform rule of Naturalization, and to repeal the acts heretofore passed on that subject,” 2 Stat. 153, 255 (14 April 1802).
  9. See Great Register Supplement, San Diego County, p. 135; “California, Voter Registers, 1866-1898,” database and images, Ancestry.com (https://www.ancestry.com : accessed 4 Sep 2017); imaged from Great Registers, 1866–1898, microfilm roll 40; Sacramento, California: California State Library.
  10. See ibid.
  11. See Cancellations of the Great Register, San Diego County, p. 174; “California, Voter Registers, 1866-1898,” database and images, Ancestry.com (https://www.ancestry.com : accessed 4 Sep 2017); imaged from Great Registers, 1866–1898, microfilm roll 40; Sacramento, California: California State Library.
  12. See “About California, Voter Registers, 1866-1898,” Ancestry.com (https://www.ancestry.com : accessed 4 Sep 2017).
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