Determining Who’s Who: A Comparative Analysis in 19th Century Federal Census Applied to John Russell Colvin and John Richard Colvin

This analysis was conducted to determine if John Russell Colvin (1845-1922)[1] and John Richard Colvin (1847-1930)[2] were siblings in the family group headed by James Madison Colvin (1809-1888)[3] or if John Russell Colvin was an heir of Howard Mason Colvin,  (1811-1883)[4]  a sibling of James Madison Colvin.


A comparative analysis was designed, based on digitized copies of primary source records with The Colvin  Study held by the researcher.[5] In addition online digitized original records were used, as well as digitized images of tombstones. For the census examined, forty years’ worth of Federal Census were examined, and  tabulated for the number of times each target subject appeared in the James Madison Colvin household and the Howard M. Colvin household then  compared for patterning such as age changes and geography using pre-established locations and  ages based on birth, death, marriage and  other records. (Fig. 1).  In addition, one additional individual in both households was tracked to insure the correct household was being studied as transcription errors and name misspellings are common in period Census. For example, in the 1870 census, what had been “Colby Colvin” in the 1860 census of the Howard M. Colvin household became “Covley  Colvin” in the 1870 census.  In the James Madison household,  William Danial Colvin, (1883-1905) was tracked. In the Howard M. Colvin household, William Mason Colvin (1843-1913) was tracked. They, in addition to the heads of households  served as the baseline against which the target individuals’ appearances were compared. Census used were the digitized copies of microfilms of original Culpeper County, Virginia  Federal census, 1850 through 1880.  The originals are held with Library of Virginia.

Historical Context:

John Richard Colvin first appears by name in the 1850 James Madison Colvin household in Jeffersonton, Culpeper County, Virginia as “John R Colvin” and thereafter as “John R. Colvin” in the 1860, 1870, and 1880 respectively. In the 1880, John is innumerate as a “widower” although his 1st wife is not yet known. In 1881, the next year, he married Ann “Annie” Elizabeth James (1865-1923) daughter of  John Pierce James and Martha Ann Burke, by who he had one known son, Earnest Adam Colvin (1882-1936).[6]  In the 1880 census, John was enumerated as a “farmer,” no doubt of great aid to his father, James Madison Colvin,  who was enumerated as being afflicted with “Dropsy” – a condition today we might  call cognitive heart failure,  the symptoms for which include painful swelling of the lower extremities. That condition would have made him all but unfit for many everyday tasks, let alone the rigorous toil of farm labor in  a pre-mechanized agricultural setting, especially at  age 71, although the enumerator gave his age as “72”.

John Russell Colvin  first appears in the 1850 Howard M. Colvin household in Orange County, Virginia as “John Colvin” and thereafter as “John Colvin” in 1860, “John R. Colvin” in 1870, where, at 23, he was working as a baggage handler for the railroad near the Continental Hotel in Upperville in Fauquier County and living apart from home. By  1880,  at age “34” his fortunes had changed considerably, but he was still enumerated as “John R. Colvin”, and still based in Fauquier. However ,  by that time,  he was a railroad conductor, and a father of  three, having married on July 25, 1871, in Fauquier County, Judith Amelia Johnson, (1850-1826) the daughter of William Johnson and Sarah Cordelia Marshall.

Given the similar names of these two cousins, and their closeness in age, it would be easy to confuse them, were careful attention not given to the nuanced differences between  trades and subtle changes in ages and locations.  Their fathers were brothers – thus  both cousins shared a  paternal grandfather, Mason Colvin (1761-1853) who with his wife Elizabeth Hawkins, (1819-1902) raised eleven children in Culpeper. In 1833,  the county was sliced in half and from the second half was created Rappahannock County.  This cleaving and new county boundary line explains how Mason Colvin can appear in records to have been born in Culpeper but died in Rappahannock, when in fact he never moved at all.  The county line had moved.

Quantitative findings:

A study of this types leaves room for interpretation certainly, however, based on the study design, the following findings were reached:

In the James Madison Colvin household, the individual who most consistently appeared during the study timeline matched the ages one would expect from an individual born in 1847: John Richard Colvin.   No other individual in the household studied closely resembled this pattern either in age or name.

In the Howard M. Colvin household, the same pattern held true for what one would expect in predictable age changes for someone born in 1845: John Russell Colvin.  In the James Madison household, the baseline individual, William D. Colvin (1838- 1905) appeared consistently  in 75% of the entries examined.  In only one census, the 1880,  is he absent from his father’s home, by which time he would be approximately 42 years old.  This is explained by the fact that in 1871, he married Mary Thomas Mathews (1852-1939) in Culpeper on September 7, 1871, and was now heading his own house with children of his own. He was found with his wife, Mary and  the first three of their six children in Culpeper, enumerated as age 41, as expected of someone born in 1838.

The examination of John Richard Colvin’s age variations in the census over a four decade were consistent during 75% of the period examined.  In only one case, was there a deviation to this pattern: in the 1860 census his age was enumerated as “21” in what should have been age 13. In all other census examined however, the ages of  John Richard Colvin were consistent with what one would expect of an individual born in 1847.

In the Howard M. Colvin Household, the baseline individual,  William Mason Colvin appeared consistently  in 100% of the entries examined. However, in the 1880 census he is now head of  his household supporting his widowed mother.  No other individuals are present in the household.

In the case of the target individual, John Russell Colvin, he appeared consistently in 50% of the households examined, leaving his father’s house between 1860-1870 and marrying Judith Amelia Johnson (1850-1926) in Culpeper on July 25, 1871. Thus, in the 1870 and 1880 census he is found heading his own house in Culpeper. However, in both cases,  his ages consistently match what one would expect of someone born in  1845.



(Click image to view in new window.)

Given this examination, it is reasonable to conclude that there is a high probability that John Russell Colvin was likely the son of Howard Mason Colvin, and that John Richard Colvin was the  son of James Madison Colvin.  The two men were likely first cousins.


[1] John Russell Colvin’s  full name is displayed on his tombstone in the Warrington Cemetery, Warrington, Fauquier County, Virginia. His obituary appeared in the Richmond Times Dispatch, May 9, 1922.

[2]  John Richard  Colvin and his 2nd wife, Ann Elizabeth James,  are buried in a private cemetery on Alamance Dr., Culpeper County. Their dates of birth and death are visible and are consistent with dates found in various census.

[3]  James Madison Colvin, in various records is referred to as “J. Colvin”, “Madison Colvin” and in other cases, such as Agriculture schedule of  1880, as “James M. Colvin.”

[4] Howard Colvin appears with his wife in various records such as Census, and city directories. He married Elizabeth Fichum February 12, 1839 in Rappahannock County. However, the marriage records have not yet been examined. Nevertheless this date correlates to years of marriage given to enumerators on census. Their burial places are not yet known.

[5] “James M. Colvin” household, 1850 U.S. Federal Census, Culpeper County, Virginia, lines 10-15; “Mathius Colvin”  household, 1860 U.S. Federal Census, Rappahannock County, Virginia, hh 173;  “James M. Colvin” household, 1870 U.S. Federal Census,  Jeffersonton, Culpeper County, Virginia, lines 21-28; “James Colvin” household, 1880 U.S. Federal Census, lines 19-21, hh 177. Jeffersonton, Culpeper County, Virginia.

[6]  “Earnest A. Colvin” appears with his parents in the 1900 U.S. Federal Census, “John R. Colvin” household, Jeffersonton, Culpeper County, Virginia, line 63-65, hh 240. Earnest also appears in 1910-1930 Census. His WWI Draft Registration card  of  September 12, 1918, provides his full name and date of birth, and shows “John R. Colvin” to be his nearest relative. His 1st wife,  Gertrude Lawrence,  was buried in the Colvin Cemetery on Alamance Drive in Culpeper. Earnest is buried with his second wife, Ritchie Elizabeth Lawrence in the same cemetery.   Gertrude and Ritchie Lawrence were siblings.


About Alex Colvin

Senior, History, minoring in Anthropology, University of Houston. Charter President, Walter Prescott Webb Historical Society, (Webb UH Main 2014-2015) University of Houston. Additional credentials can be found in the CV / Services tab.
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