Native Americans and the Federal Census

[Author’s note:  This article is the last in a series of articles examining the history and importance of the Federal Census.  The Local History Room is highlighting the census since 2020 is a census year.  Did you fill yours out?]
When the federal census was first established, only one group was explicitly excluded:  “Indians not taxed.” That is to say, those who lived on tribal lands rather than under the U.S. government. Indigenous people who lived away from tribal lands were counted under the category of “all other free persons” and could be included in the census.
This changed in 1846, when Congress empowered the Secretary of War to conduct a census of all Indigenous people. The results, which were far from complete, were nevertheless published alongside totals from the 1850 census, though only as a piece of interesting information.
Even if these results had been included in the official census, the count would have been far from accurate. Before 1860, the census was designed to erase Indigenous people. Up to that point, the questionnaires listed two options when it came to ethnicity:  white or black. (A third option, mulatto, was added in 1850.) Being none of these, Indigenous people were listed as white, if at all. Only in 1860 was “Indian” added as an option.
Because enumerators did not count Indigenous people living on tribal lands, total population numbers remain elusive. The National Archives has estimated that, in 1860, only 13% of Indigenous people were counted, compared to 8% in 1870 and 22% in 1880.
In Wisconsin, these numbers also changed wildly. The 1860 census counted only 2,833 Indigenous people “retaining their tribal character” in the entire state. In 1870, almost five thousand Indigenous people were counted as part of the census, with another five thousand "estimated" to be living on tribal lands, and more than 1,200 counted as living apart from tribal relations. This put the overall population at 11,521 people. Ten years later, this number fell to 7,673. In 1890, that number rose to 9,930, with almost two-thirds living on tribal lands.
As the years changed, so did the data being collected. The 1880 census included questions such as “Is this person a chief?” and “Is this person a war chief?” Agents from the Bureau of Indian Affairs were instructed how to transcribe Indigenous names using a manual, then asked to write down an English translation as well as the respondent’s “common name.”
A census of the Ho-Chunk was first conducted in 1883. The federal government, tasked with paying annuities to members of the Nation, wanted an accurate count of how many people would be receiving them. Because many Ho-Chunk people had been removed to Nebraska, allotments would need to be divided between the two states. This process remained unresolved for decades. Eventually, the federal government ordered another census in 1910, followed by a third in 1912, to settle the issue.
Even after the issue of annuities was settled, the Ho-Chunk were counted every year. This was due to an 1884 law requiring Indian Agencies across the country to conduct a yearly census roll of “all Indians under their charge.” In southwest Wisconsin, this task first fell to Lindley M. Compton, superintendent of the Tomah Indian Industrial School, who oversaw the census roll until 1917, when responsibility shifted to the Grand Rapids Indian Agency based in Wisconsin Rapids. The task returned to Tomah in 1927.  
Early versions of this census asked for basic information:  name, age, sex, family relationship, tribe, and reservation. Over time, this grew to include more detailed data, such as degree of blood, enrollment, annuity identification numbers, and the closest post office.
The 1911 census recorded almost 1,250 Ho-Chunk. By 1927, that number had risen to 1,328. That same year, there were more women than men (360 to 329) and almost as many girls as boys (342 to 337), while the number of adults was almost equal to the number of children (689 to 679). The 1927 census also reported 304 families.
The oldest man listed in these records was WauZheKah (John Coon), who was 100 years old when counted in 1911. The oldest woman was WaConChaZeeWinKah (Susan Money), who was last recorded in 1915 at age 94.
These census records also include familiar names to the area. One is Mitchell Red Cloud, Jr., a resident of Jackson County who would be posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for heroism during the Korean War. John C. “Frisk” Cloud, who wrote a weekly column for the Tomah Journal called “Indian News,” is another.
Eventually, the yearly census would include members of the Oneida and Stockbridge-Munsee Nations, as they were also under the purview of the Tomah Indian Agency. The Tomah Indian Industrial School closed in 1935, and the last yearly census of the Ho-Chunk was conducted in 1939.
As to how Indigenous people themselves reacted to the constant enumerations, reactions were mixed. Some resisted any attempt at being counted by the very same government that had violated treaties, taken their land, and dispatched armies to fight them. Others saw the census as a way to strengthen their claims for citizenship, which, despite the adoption of the 14th Amendment in 1868, would not be granted to them until 1924, or in some cases 1957.
Regardless of how they were viewed at the time, these census records are a valuable resource for anyone researching Native American history and genealogy.  The Monroe County Local History Room & Museum has a brand-new index featuring over 10,000 entries of Ho-Chunk members living throughout Monroe County and the rest of Wisconsin between 1911 and 1929 that were pulled from the Tomah Indian Agency Census Rolls.  To search the index, visit  Additional census years will be added to it in the future.

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