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Treasures of the Archives: Tracing Pioneer Families through the Territorial Censuses

1889 engraving of the California Hotel, where Parker plied his trade as a barber. The building was lost a few months later in Spokane’s Great Fire, but the Parker family endured. Image from Spokane Falls Illustrated (1889).

Sometime before 1885, J. Bryson Parker, a barber by trade, moved from Nevada to set up shop in the booming frontier community of Spokane Falls in the Washington Territory. Parker was African American, listed in the 1885 census as “mulatto,” a term which in those days meant someone whose ancestors were both black and white. Parker was born in New York State in 1853. His wife Ordelia, also listed as mulatto, was born in Canada in 1858. She may have been a descendant of some of the 100,000 African American refugees who escaped from slavery along the Underground Railroad. As a girl she might even have been taken on that journey herself. The couple’s westward migration included stops in Utah and Nevada, indicated by the birthplaces of their children. Charles (age 7) was born in 1878 in the Utah Territory. Scandus (5) and Byron Jr. (1) were born in Nevada.

The 1885 Territorial Census is more than a list of names, the birthplaces can tell stories of family migration on the American frontier.

The Parkers prospered in Spokane Falls. Nelson Durham’s 1912 history of the town mentions that Parker ran the O.K. Barber Shop, located in the California Hotel. The family appears again in the 1887 territorial census, this time with addition of two-year-old Harry Parker and baby sister Leoutine. Recorded on either side of Parker family in the census are two men classified as black, Sidney Pullhauer and Ike Long, both hotel porters. Since census takers often went from house to house, this may indicate the beginnings of a black community in Spokane. In 1910 the Parkers were still living in Spokane, according to the federal census of that year.

Though the federal government performs a census every ten years, it was not uncommon for territories and even counties to do their own census. The Digital Archives has a number of these for Washington, from an 1847 Heads of Families census for Lewis County through the 1920 Federal Census for Yakima County. These records offer insights into individuals and communities that are available nowhere else.

-Story by Larry Cebula