An Evidentiary Conflict Resolved: The Case of Mistaken Identity Betwixt Sanford Colvin and Sanford Carter

Mary Colvin household, 1850 Federal Census, Stafford County, Virginia.  Many researchers have confused Sanford for a Colvin, thanks to this census..

Mary Colvin household, digitized original of the 1850 Federal Census, Stafford County, Virginia. Many researchers have confused Sanford (line 12, hh 258, ) for a Colvin, thanks to this census.

On or about August 24, 1850, a Federal enumerator visited his 258th  household in the Eastern Census District of Stafford County, Virginia.[1] That day he met with or was told about the occupants. There was Mary Colvin, the head of household, sixty years old allegedly, overseeing a home composed almost entirely of females – all of them her descendants – three generations worth. There were also men folk. One, her son Alfred Colvin, at thirty  years old, was a seeming confirmed bachelor. And there were two other men: Richard Carter, and an odd duck, Sanford Colvin. These two, Richard and Sanford, according to how they were tallied in the census, appear to be oddly similar. They are, for example, the only two “laborers,” on what was clearly a subsistence farm – the term in such records implying day laborers — men hired by the day, week, or season, typically when there was planting or harvesting to do. Alfred, Mary’s son, conversely, was listed as “farmer” which implied he was a permanent resident of the location. The two laborer males were also some thirteen years apart in age – close enough to pass for siblings. But with different surnames, that appear, at first glance, unlikely. Thus far, compelling but indirect evidence strongly suggests Mary Colvin was the likely spouse of John Colvin in whose household, according to the 1820 U.S. Federal Census, three young males (most likely sons,) resided.[2] Two members of the trio were between 0-10 years old; the third was age 16-18. Careful analysis of that census and other records from 1810-1860, reveal that George Colvin (who by 1840 had relocated with his family to Ohio ) and Alfred Colvin, (who died in 1870) are very likely the two sons of John who appear in the 1820 census.[3]

That obviously leaves Sanford Colvin as the 3rd son – or does it? To answer that question, a little cross-referencing is in order: we must return to the 1850 Federal Census where Sanford is enumerated as being age “43.” If correct, Sanford would have to have been age thirteen in 1820. If correct, however, this also creates a conflict since no male appears in the 1820 John Colvin census age 10-16, despite there being a column for such a listing. Further, if age thirteen  in 1820, that would mean that by 1823 — when Sanford would turned sixteen — one would expect to find him as John’s tithable beginning in that year’s annual county personal property tax lists, and every year thereafter for at least another four or five  years. Yet Sanford never appears in these lists as John’s tithable. The reason for Sanford’s conspicuous absence from the tax lists cannot, however, be deduced by studying census records where Sanford does not comfortably fit into the John Colvin household. His absence from those records is better explained instead by analyzing the tax list of the 1820s where Sanford first turns up in a  March 9, 1829 entry.[4] His surname, like Mary Colvin, (who rather expectedly appears,) was misspelled Calvin. Yet analyzing these lists over subsequent years, reveals that Sanford’s surname was misspelled in a way different from Mary’s. After following the entries, the pattern becomes clear: Sanford’s surname was not being misspelled, like Mary’s, by the single letter “a” but by several letters. Although it was on more than one occasion listed with the Colvins, it more rightfully belonged with the Carters. In fact, from 1839 – 1850 Sanford is routinely listed by tax enumerators as a Carter with the exception of 1829 and 1841 when his surname was mutated into Calvin.[5]

Like census enumerators, tax commissioners and their aides, made multiple copies of their lists. In Virginia at least four copies were required – each likewise being hand-written. But unlike the census, the names were not listed in the order in which the homes were visited, but in alphabetical order – and even then not entirely in orderly fashion — all occurring after the commissioner’s rounds were made to collect the sworn statements of who owed what, and their tallies returned to the clerks. In Virginia, the original 1st and 3rd copied sets of lists are no longer extant; thus, the microfilmed copies ordinarily consulted by researchers are those of the 4th and final copied list – those that went to the state Auditor’s office in Richmond. Ergo, from a purely clerical perspective, it’s easy to imagine how all the required hand-copying (hundreds of names copied four times each,) was destined to generated errors. Fortunately, because more often than not the clerks managed to spell Sanford’s surname correctly as Carter, the pattern in the tax lists explains why, after all, he doesn’t (and shouldn’t,)  fit comfortably in the John Colvin census of 1820, and why, moreover, he is absent from John’s tithes in the tax lists thereafter. He was not a Colvin. It also explains why, in the Mary Colvin household of 1850, he and Richard Carter seem so similar in age and occupation: they were very likely brothers.


[1] Mary Colvin household,  1850 U.S. Federal Census,  August 24, 1850, Eastern District, Stafford County, Virginia, (microfilm) Line 11-19, household 258. Clayton Library Center for Genealogical Research, Houston, TX. Hereafter “CLCGR”.

[2] For John Colvin household composition, see: John “Calvin” entry,  February 11, 1828, Stafford County, Virginia., Personal Property Tax List, (microfilm) Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia. This is John’s last appearance in the tax lists.  See also: Mary Colvin entry,  March 9,  1829, Stafford County, Virginia. Personal Property Tax Lists, Library of Virginia. Given the intersection of John’s last appearance and Mary’s first appearance, this is the strongest (though indirect,)  evidence that Mary was John’s widow. See also: Mary Colvin household, 1830 U.S. Federal Census, Falmouth, Stafford County, Virginia. Mary appears as the head of household because only single widowed females or those of legal age and unmarried with property would have been counted in the tax or census records as heads. Ordinarily, females were not a part of the tallies.  See also: John Colvin household, 1820 U.S. Federal Census,  Stafford County, Virginia. CLCGR, Houston, Texas.

[3] George Colvin household, 1840, U.S. Federal Census, Jackson, Monroe County, Ohio; Alfred Colvin entry, August 12, 1870, Stafford County, Virginia Death Register, 1853-1875, Virginia Bureau of Vital Statistics, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia.

[4] Sanford “Calvin “entry, March 9,  1829, Stafford County, Virginia., (microfilm) Dept. of  Taxation, 1814-1838, CLCGR, Houston, TX.

[5] Mary “Calvin” entry, February 14, 1831, Stafford County, Virginia. Department of Taxation, 1814-1838, (microfilm) CLCGR, Houston, Texas. As with previous entries, the Colvin surname is misspelled “Calvin” due to obvious clerical errors. See also: John “Calvin” entry, February 11, 1828, for another example. For Sanford with his correct surname “Carter”  see entries, March 11,  1839; March 18  1840; March 5,  1842; 1847, [no date]; 1848 [no date] 1849 [no date] and 1850, [no date] Stafford County, Virginia Personal Property Tax Lists (microfilm) 1839-1850 CLCGR, Houston, TX. Of the eight  times Sanford is listed between 1839-1850,  on only two occasions is his surname misspelled as “Calvin”.  Most telling of the two incidents, however, in that of the  March 20, 1841 list where Sanford  is among the Carters.


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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