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The special challenges confronting historians extend beyond the impossibility of communicating interactively with dead people. We also run into a problem when we try to trace individuals from one set of records to another. Record linkage allows historians to get a multidimensional picture of individual and group behavior by making connections between different sources of information. But record linkage can be tricky. Say, for example, we are interested in comparing the average wealth-holdings of two church congregations, one Lutheran and the other Catholic. We are fortunate to have membership lists for both groups as well as complete tax lists for the larger community. A problem arises, however, when we discover that three Lutherans and two Catholics share the same name: John Williamson. This difficulty is compounded when we find only three John Williamsons—one with little property, the others more affluent—on the tax list. On the basis of the available documents, we have no way to know which John Williamson belongs to which congregation. To be sure, because there are only two Catholic John Williamsons, we may assume that at least one John Williamson on the tax list is Lutheran—unless there are other congregations in the community or there is a John Williamson who belongs to no church at all. Still, even if we assume that one of the John Williamsons is Lutheran, we cannot determine which one—the relatively poor John Williamson or one of his richer namesakes? Imagine the difficulty when you are trying to make linkages between hundreds of records with dozens of duplicate names. Ironically, the modern solution to this sort of problem is to assign each individual or case a unique number to be used as an identifier across a range of different sets of records. (Notwithstanding federal regulations, your social security number frequently serves this purpose, which is why you may find it on your driver’s license, your paycheck, your school transcript, and other important documents.) But the historian cannot assign such numbers retrospectively without having first resolved the confusion they are supposed to avoid.

Although record linkage sometimes involves trying to match large sets of data, historians often use it in much more limited contexts. For example, an 1880 newspaper article mentions that Terrence O’Malley and Hans Normann were the leaders of a strike in a wire mill. Tracing O’Malley and Normann into the City Directory and the manuscript census reveals that they were neighbors, landowners, and American-born children of immigrant parents. Such information helps us to understand the leadership of the strike in ways that the newspaper article alone doesn’t. Or, a 1910 newspaper account describes how the women of Delancey Street (an immigrant neighborhood on Manhattan’s Lower East Side) organized a protest against rising rents. Tracing those women into census and tax records helps us to learn about their race, ethnicity, and occupations, as well as the structure of their families.

Census records can tell you something about the past, and so can non-quantitative evidence, like newspaper accounts. What happens if you combine the two? Here’s an example from New York City in the 1850s, when the city was developing plans for Central Park. This exercise asks you to use the evidence from the sources used by quantitative historians (for example, census and land records) to test a view that is presented in more subjective sources.

Most people assume that New York’s Central Park, the nation’s best-known urban landscape, was built on unoccupied land. In fact, about 1,600 people lived on part of the area that became Central Park in the late 1850s; their community was known as Seneca Village. One way to learn about these “pre-park” dwellers is to look at what both contemporaries and subsequent commentators had to say about them. Here are some excerpts:

The Park residents are “principally Irish families” living in “rickety . . . little one storie shanties . . . . inhabited by four or five persons, not including the pig and the goats.”
New York Times, March 5, 1856

The land for Central Park is the “scene of plunder and depredations,” “the headquarters of vagabonds and scoundrels of every description,” and the location of “gambling dens, the lowest type of drinking houses, and houses of every species of rascality.”
New York Evening Post, May 31, 1856

The park before construction was “the refuge of about five thousand squatters, dwelling in rude huts of their own construction, and living off the refuse of the city. . . .These people who had thus overrun and occupied the territory were principally of foreign birth, with but very little knowledge of the English language, and with very little respect for the law. Like the ancient Gauls, they wanted land to live on, and they took it.”
Egbert Viele, “Topography of New-York and Its Park System,” in The Memorial History of the City of New York, ed. James Grant Wilson, 5 vols (1893), 4: 556-7.

The park land was a “wilderness” filled with “the habitations of poor and wretched people of every race and color and nationality, [including] . . . many families of colored people with whom consorted and in many cases amalgamated, debased and outcast whites. Many of the inhabitants of this village had no regular occupation, finding it easy to replenish their stock of fuel with driftwood from the river and supply their tables from the same source, with fish.”
John Punnett Peters, ed., Annals of St. Michael’s (1907).

Were the residents of the land that became Central Park described accurately by these quotes?

Do the documents below support or contradict the descriptions above? To find out for yourself, search in the documents for evidence about Andrew Williams, one of the park residents. Does the evidence in these documents about Andrew Williams fit with the description of Seneca Village residents in the quotations?

1. Andrew Williams Affidavit of Petition, 1856

2. New York State Census, 1855 (Transcription of census page)

3. Manhattan Square Benefit Map, 1838

4. Excerpt from Central Park Condemnation Map, 1856

True Or False?

Andrew Williams was an Irish immigrant who lived “in a rickety little one store shanty” with “pigs and goats.”

True False

Andrew Williams was a transient.

True False

Andrew Williams’ family “consorted and ... amalgamated” with “debased and outcast whites.”

True False

Andrew Williams was a “squatter.”

True False

Andrew Williams lived in a disordered “wilderness.”

True False

Andrew Williams had “very little knowledge of the English language.”

True False

Andrew Williams “had no regular occupation.”

True False