A Love Letter to Census Takers, From a Museum Curator

Dear Alaska Census Taker,

You know why your work taking the census matters for the future of Alaska. The data you collect will determine federal funding, state and federal political representation, and more.

However, have you considered how much your work matters to history? My job is to help museums across Alaska, and let me tell you, the census is a HUGE help to curators, historians, genealogists, and many other kinds of researchers who rely on census data to understand the past. The census is an essential primary source in Alaska, as it provides an unparalleled snapshot in time.

I want to show you a few census pages from 1900 to show you how we use the census to understand Alaska’s past.

Nome census pageThis census record on the left was taken in 1900 in Nome and illustrates that people came from all over the country and world to mine a Bering Sea beach. Not one person on this entire page has a home address in Alaska. Census officials clearly presumed that this would be the case across Alaska when they designed the questions, as another census question asks a person to differentiate between their profession at home and their profession in Alaska. Those answers indicate that many of Nome’s residents in 1900 were novice miners, who spent their professional lives in the Lower 48 working as electricians, farmers, carpenters. From this single census page, we see evidence of how the allure of gold infected the country and resulted in waves of inexperienced individuals travelling from afar with the hopes of striking a lode.

Many are familiar with the story of Nome. However, the census also captures communities, individuals, and data points that otherwise might be absent from the historical record.

Below you will see a 1900 census sheet from Klukwan, a Tlingit village in northern Southeast Alaska. This record is meaningful for genealogy, as descendants can find their ancestors listed by their Tlingit names. Moreover, the census sheet shows us the vibrant economy of Klukwan—a place where nearly all were engaged in artistic production as a means of making a living. For example, Cheesach was a blanket weaver, making Chilkat robes. We see that Trakowish was a canoe maker. We see that many people in Klukwan made their livelihoods from beadwork. This data provides a documentary record of the meaningful artistic legacy of Klukwan.

Klukwan census page

My dear census taker, I hope that these examples show you that with each census entry you record, you are creating a historically valuable document.

Ivan Petroff As you make your rounds, consider that you are but the most recent in a line of Alaska census takers that reaches back to 1880. One hundred and forty years ago, census taker Ivan Petroff (pictured here) sailed, rowed, hiked, and dogsledded across Alaska to count residents. Every ten years since, your enumerating predecessors went from mining claim to cannery, from fish camp to fox farm, from military base to village, recording Alaska’s population in fair weather and in foul.

What persists across those 140 years is your service. Thank you for counting Alaskans now and in so doing, creating a reliable snapshot in time that people generations from now will study and appreciate. Thank you for your role in making Alaska history.   

Your admirer,

Anjuli Grantham


Nome 1900 census page

Caption: The census taken in Nome in 1900 indicates the large number of people who were temporarily in Nome to take part in what was for them a temporary occupation—mining.

Klukwan 1900 census page

Caption: The census taken in Klukwan in 1900 demonstrates the long-lasting artistic legacy of this Tlingit village.

Ivan Petroff takes the census

Caption: Ivan Petroff takes the 1890 census on Kodiak Island. Petroff was involved in the 1880 census, as well. From Robert Porter, Report on the Population and Resources of Alaska (Washington, DC: GPO, 1893).