Census records tie Vashon and West Seattle

By Ann Kendall

There was no way for Vashon-Maury voters in the late 1930s to fully understand the impact of their pending ballot box decision: which ferry dock should be the primary for Vashon and Maury Island – Fauntleroy or Tacoma? The Fauntleroy dock opened in the 1920s but it was seen as secondary, with the Tacoma facing route the primary means of getting back and forth to the mainland. Most island residents lived towards the south end of the co-joined islands at the time; commerce flowed daily back and forth through Tacoma with the island’s multiple saw mills, brickyards and shipyard. When the West Seattle dock was chosen as the primary ferry route, the island’s population began to shift north, altering the location of the island’s focus of commerce and habitation.

This story of development and many more can be found in Vashon-Maury’s Census Project – the first project in the United States to pull together, electronically (and freely available), records from 1870 to 2010. Developed by islanders Alice Larson and Bruce Haulman, both active leaders in researching and teaching about Vashon-Maury history with financial help from King County’s 4Culture and hundreds of volunteer hours, the Census Project goes beyond documentation and offers insight into the population over the course of the islands’ documented history. The well-defined geography of the islands made pulling together records covering 150 years a distinct task; the islands remain today as in the past, an unincorporated area of King County and not subject to changing geo-political boundaries that other areas of the county and country face.

The Census Project reveals shifts in the islands’ population – and handwritten inaccuracies in tracking essential elements of a population such as ethnicity and occupation, that begs for more detail. An occupation listed as “engineer” in 1890 was someone that ran steam engines, quite different than today’s definition. The record of Matthew Bridges, Vashon’s first settler, shows just how problematic census data can be – while his story involves marrying a Native American woman and having a family – the census data tracks their ethnicities in a variety of ways with no consistency. Depending on which ethnic categories were listed on a census takers’ form, people of Chinese decent may be listed as mulatto; several censuses around World War II ethnicity (or language) were not tracked at all. Up next for Larson and Haulman will be digging into the records of Japanese residents of the islands prior to WWII as 1940 census records have been released earlier than the usual 72 year mandate. From this they will learn who lived on the island, who was interned and where and what happened to those families after the war and hopefully learn why many never returned to the islands.

Today, West Seattle and Vashon-Maury share an existence that is tied together through continued commerce, daily commutes and schools. Issues that affect West Seattle inherently involve residents of the island – whether proposed Metro or ferry system cuts, the challenges of affordable housing, changing populations and how to manage growth. Going forward, tracking changes as they occur may become more difficult as future censuses won’t track data necessary to plan for the future which ultimately results in a loss of history for any community; economic data in particular can be used for forecasting. Larson and Haulman speak often about their work on the Census Project and invite inquiry from those interested in undertaking a project for their own community. To learn more visit: http://vashonhistory.com/index.htm.

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