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From Antietam to Ohio: Using the Census to Find Georgianna Rollins

July 17, 2020

National Park Service Antietam Washington County African American History Women's History

From Antietam to Ohio: Using the Census to Find Georgianna Rollins

This year you probably received a mailed census form to fill out. The census helps calculate the political weight of the districts we live in and determines the resources growing communities receive. Not only that, the census is also important as a resource that helps historians and genealogists trace the often invisible stories of common people.

For example, the Pry House Field Hospital Museum, administered by the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, is preserved on Antietam National Battlefield. One of the main ways we know about all of the people who lived in the household previous to the battle is the census. In 1860, the Pry household was recorded: Mr. and Mrs. Pry, their children, a farmhand, and an African American woman named Amanda Samper and a girl named Georgianna Rollins. 

1860 census

1860 census accessed from Ancestry.com, see full page.

In 1860 it was recorded that Georgianna Rollins was just twelve years old. Unlike the similarly aged Pry children she was living with, she had not attended school within the past year. Even if she had the time, resources, and support to attend school, it’s possible that there wasn’t yet a school in the region that she would have been permitted to attend. It would still be years until Tolson's Chapel would be built in Sharpsburg in 1866, serving as a Freedmen's Bureau school in 1868. Her relationship with Amanda Samper, listed as a housekeeper, is not explained by the census-- each individual was defined in the record by their relationship to the head of the household, rather than to one another.

Four years later, Georgianna may have been a first-hand witness to the Battle of Antietam and she was certainly there in its aftermath. She is said to have helped Philip Pry to gather “cannon balls and artillery shells from around the property and buried them near the barn.” (1) Philip Pry’s granddaughter seconds the claim, writing that “In the vicinity of the barn a load of Cannon balls is buried. Grand father and Georgian [sic] were the only one who knew where.” (2)

It’s possible to follow the general direction her life took her after the battle: in 1880 she had married North Carolinian John Rose and they had both settled in the Sharpsburg area with their four children. The census notes that they could both read and write.

1880 census

1880 census accessed from Ancestry.com, see full page. 

In 1900 the couple were still living in Washington County. They reported to the census that they had been married for 25 years. Their two younger children, then nearly the age Georgianna was when the Battle of Antietam arrived on her doorstep, were students. The census taker marked that Georgianna and John could read but not write. We don't know the reason for the disparity, but it is not uncommon for census records to disagree on details like the spelling of names and exact ages.

1900 census

1900 census accessed from Ancestry.com, see full page.

This inconsistency in the record is not uncommon as human error enters the equation. Census takers could mishear or misspell names, individuals could edit their birthdates and other details. This record also gives us valuable biographical details that can serve as jumping off points: what year to search for marriage and birth records, which state’s records to search for John Rose and his parents. However, in the likely event that John was born into slavery, the task becomes exponentially more difficult. Some archives today are working to make it simpler to find enslaved individuals in their records, creating searchable databases of manumission records and other record series that included enslaved people. 

In 1930, Georgianna and her family were recorded in Columbus, Ohio. She was in the midst of two more events of national importance: the Great Depression and the Great Migration. Many of her Black neighbors also had roots outside of Ohio. Arthur K. Lawrence, her neighbor two doors down, was a physician who in his youth had served in the Spanish American war. A World War I veteran, Roy L. White, lived on her street and was the proprietor of an auto club. Georgianna was living with her son, two daughters, and grandson. This time the census states that she can neither read nor write. We cannot tell if that final disparity is because of assumption and error, failing eyesight as Georgianna entered her eighties, or because that year’s census did not split reading and writing, allowing only a yes or no to apply to both. 

1930 census

1930 census accessed from Ancestry.com, zoom in and read the full page.

Most of the past lies undiscovered in the stories of ordinary people living, working, raising families and sometimes bumping up against seismic events of national and global importance. Sometimes they went to the war and other times, like in the case of Georgianna and the Pry family, the war came to them. By researching the lives of ordinary people, we can shed light on the personal triumphs and tragedies that give history its meaning. By participating in the census, we give future generations that same opportunity to find our individual stories and the world we inhabit in 2020. 


1. Quote from National Museum of Civil War Medicine resources, sourced from Kevin Walker in A Guide to the Battlefield Landscape: Antietam Farmsteads, Sharpsburg: Western Maryland Interpretative Association, 2010, p. 136.

 2. Quote from National Museum of Civil War Medicine resources, sourced from transcribed letter by Elizabeth Jones, daughter of Annie Jones (nee Pry, b. 1861), to her daughter Hazel. Transcribed by Gary Scott in historic structures report, The Philip Pry House: Headquarters of General George B. McClellan, Antietam National Battlefield, November 1980, p. 41.

Emily Huebner

Contributing Author: Emily Huebner

Emily Huebner is the Assistant Director of the Heart of the Civil War Heritage Area. Prior to joining the Heart of the Civil War Heritage Area in 2017, she worked on the Study of the Legacy of Slavery in Maryland at the Maryland State Archives. She received her undergraduate degree in History... Read More