THE CENSUS OF 1861 (May 21/99)

In 1860 the Secretary of the Board of Statistics wrote that this would be “a first attempt to make a complete census (in Nova Scotia).” The reference was to the census of 1861 that was started on March 30 of that year. Using county residents as census-takers, this was the last independent enumeration of the province before Confederation.

When the last census was taken a decade earlier, Nova Scotia’s population was 276,117. The count in 1861 was 330,857, an increase of nearly 20 percent. Nova Scotia’s population was growing rapidly and most of the increase was taking place in rural areas. In Kings County alone the population had increased by almost one-third since the 1851 census; Kings County was the second highest growth area in the province between 1851 and 1861.

The census of 1861 produced more interesting information than population counts, however. The census revealed the gruesome statistic that between the census years there were more male deaths than female – 12 percent more, in fact. The main cause of death was tuberculosis and diphtheria but the census showed that other contagious diseases had also taken their toll.

A census that counted that counted heads and includes a survey health problems? Apparently, that’s the way they did things in the 19th century. Head counts, death rates, farm and industry surveys, a cataloguing of occupations… these things and more were in the copy of the census I found recently at Acadia University. And while the statistics are dull and the facts and figures only apply to life as it was over 100 years ago, they put our great grandfather’s period in perspective. Besides that, some of the information gathered in the census is amusing.

In 1861, for example, seven people in Nova Scotia gave their occupation as matchmakers and at the time there were only five registered dentists and 170 registered physicians. One quarter of the male population told the census-takers they were farmers (with some fishing on the side) and one gentleman was a full-time ice dealer. It was the time of wooden ships and iron men, so it isn’t surprising that Nova Scotians had 3,118 vessels registered in the shipping trade; and a count of 5,242 mariners and 1,112 shipwrights was to be expected.

Horses were the main mode of transportation and along with oxen, were used as draft animals in farming and lumbering. So it isn’t surprising that in 1861 a total of 1,518 men (and possibly a female or two) worked as blacksmiths. In 1851 Nova Scotians owned 13,138 horses; by 1861 this number had increased to 41,927, mainly the census returns said “because they (horses) were starting to replace oxen.”

Potatoes were the main farm crop in the period from census to census – the returns indicated a 100 percent increase in the growing of potatoes between 1851 and 1861. There were over 2,000 mills operating in the province in 1861, of which 414 were grist mills and 77 carding mills. Most of the mills ran by water power but there were a handful of steam mills and one wind mill that ground grain commercially.

Another commentary on the times (and perhaps a comment of sorts on the drinking habits of Valley people) were the number of temperance halls registered in the province. The grand total was 49 province-wide and of these eight were located in Kings County and nine in Hants County.

Just after the census was taken, 14,392 Kings County residents said their ethnic origin was English, there were 3,755 residents of Irish origin and 1,841 Scots; the number of French (Acadian?) in the county was a mere 281. In Hants County during the same period 8,589 people said they were English, 5,728 claimed Irish origin and the Scots numbered 5,051; only 186 people said they were of French origin.

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