Individual stories

In this section we report on various approaches to trying to find out more about the individuals behind the aggregate census data.

As various scholars have noted, census data is incredibly valuable – especially when we’re trying to understand the lives of ordinary people as opposed to famous or elite individuals. The great mass of ordinary people have historically not left behind all that many diaries or letters – or when they have, often those documents still haven’t made it into the archives.

In some ways immigrants to the United States are a better-documented group than most – the status of immigration as one of the founding American experiences has resulted in a significant effort to collect, archive, and even publish immigrant letters and diaries. Immigrants have also been the target of a fair number of oral history efforts.

This section currently contains two efforts at finding out more about individual immigrants. The first one, by Jessica Hoppe, takes as its starting point the fascination individual stories hold, and then goes on to show how truly difficult it is to find out about individuals. The second, by Ben Kooiman, goes beyond our slice of census data to examine two oral history interviews to show how complex a process immigration is and what a variety of motives immigrants have to leave their homes and make a new life in a new place.