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Mysterious People in the 1838 Census

There are some people in the 1838 census who are quite mysterious.

Sidebar - This post needs a soundtrack. I highly suggest you turn on this nice number from Frank Johnson, Black Metropolis musician extraordinaire, while reading this post.

The other day, we were prepping for our Diaspora tour and Morgan got a pull - this is when we 'feel' that we need to walk in a certain direction. She turns to me and goes 'Michi - who lived here?'

And so I pulled out my trusty finding aid and read off the names of the people on Locust east of Washington Square, We wandered into what's called 'The Rose Garden' which is a very enclavy, quiet, private feeling (but owned by the National Park Service) square bordered by homes that had been there since the late 1770s.

"So...", I said, "This is interesting." And I immediately felt guilty. Because a a very very rich Black woman lived here. And to date I had only talked about very very rich Black men.

The richest Black men in 1838 aren't even in the 1838 census. Stephen Smith, Robert Purvis, William Whipper are not listed, although James Forten is. Notably Forten's wealth is listed as 'not reported'. We think this is because they were worried about dangers to their families, if people knew where they lived. In the 1834 and 1835 riots, the homes of wealthy Black Philadelphians were targeted. We think that Smith, Whipper and Purvis wanted to keep their homes off the radar of murderous white mobs.

But Hagar....Hagar was like 'Yes, I'm rich and don't sleep on me. Here's how rich I am." and she listed $56,000 in total wealth; about $2 million in today's dollars. This makes her the richest person in the 1838 Census, even if she wasn't the richest Black person in the city.

So Mystery Number 1: WHO IS HAGAR BALLARD???

I found her will online, in which she leaves basically all her wealth to her sister, Livinia Mintus , who lived with her. In 1838 she's living in her house on 170 Locust which, from what the records indicate, was richly appointed. In 1838, she's a widow, in addition to her sister, four other women are living in the house with them.

Ann, Ellen, Levina all attended Mother Bethel AME while Hagar and Priscilla all attended St. Thomas. Joanna doesn't list a church, which is fairly unusual. Given the socioeconomic differences between the congregations, that diversity of church membership must have made for interesting home dynamics.

I found her husband,Leavan Ballard, in the St. Thomas Episcopal Pew Records. but the 1820 US Census lists him as Laban Ballard. Beyond that I can't find records that would indicate how they came into that much money.

Also - it's noted in Hagar's will that she can't read and write. Maybe she was born in enslavement? I really want to know how Hagar came into that much money. I love the wording in this will where Hagar leaves all of her fortune to her sister "absolutely forever."

Hagar leaves her estate to her sister "absolutely forever". It's noted that she does not know how to write.


We found a musician couple in the 1838 Census.

John W. Curtis and his wife lived at 58 Quince (which was North of Spruce). There were 10 people in the home, 4 of whom were children and 7 of whom were not native to Pennsylvania - an indicator that they may have self-emancipated.

What is so interesting is that they clearly state that they are musicians, not just in the 1838 Census but in the city directory. They were *really* doing the musician thing! Were they on the Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield tip - more classical? Or maybe a Frank Johnson tip - a little more popular music? Did they have their own flow - did they play music outside on the street on Quince? Did they bring in African rhythms and instruments?

Musician Joseph G. Anderson (pictured above) played with Frank Johnson's band in the 1840s and may have played with John W. Curtis, or at least they may have known of each other. There were only so many musicians in town. The 1838 Census lists 7.

Mystery Number 3: Spanish Sliver Dollars

Joseph Roberts and his wife lived around 7th and Lombard (254 South 7th) in 1838. He was a cabinetmaker and she was a dressmaker. They owned their home and had no children.

He moved to Philadelphia with $2700 Spanish Silver Dollars (about $90,000 in today's dollars). The census taker made a special note of that in the census document.

Why did John Roberts make that known to the public? He must have told the census taker and the census taker made a special note with a little star. Was this a message for someone - a code if you will? Wouldn't letting people know he had these very small, very portable dollars in his home be a fairly unsafe thing to do? It's a mystery.

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