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Vashon’s demographic history is revealed through new project

After two years and countless hours of painstaking research and data transcription, a pair of islanders has created a one-of-a-kind online archive where anyone can find detailed Vashon census data for the last 144 years.

“We had no idea how extensive this was going to be, but it’s very exciting,” said Alice Larson, a co-developer of the site. “I don’t know of any other place in the country where you can find similar information all gathered in one place.”

Larson, who has a PhD in social welfare research, is a data development and analysis expert. She and Bruce Haulman, a retired history professor and Vashon historian, came up with the idea for The Census Project, now at vashonhistory.com, four years ago while having coffee.

Larson and Haulman’s idea materialized as they discussed the fact that unlike most towns or cities whose boundaries evolve over time, as an island, Vashon’s borders haven’t changed, and being a part of King County and Washington state since 1870 adds to Vashon’s unique geographic stability. Haulman and Larson explained that this means all of the U.S. Census data that has ever been collected for the island can show true demographic trends.

After receiving a King County 4Culture grant through the Heritage Association, the pair were able to get to work on the project.

All of the information for the new archive came from federal, state and territorial census data, which  meant that all of the information from 1870 through 1940 was hand-written.

“We were working with images of hand-written enumerator notes,” Larson said. “These were not easy to transcribe. We had to check everything really well to account for unclear writing or misspelling, or even things that could have been misheard by the census takers.”

When the images weren’t clear enough, the pair used other resources such as Ancestry.com, various historical archives and the Heritage Museum to find the information they needed. They said the data from 1950 to 2010 was actually the most challenging to complete.

“Half of the information for Vashon from 1950 is missing,” Larson said. “Each census decade had its challenges. In the ’50s and ’60s for example, ‘Hispanic’ wasn’t even considered a category, and there is no racial data from 1950 at all. So these are the types of things we had to sort out.”

On the recently redesigned vashonhistory.com website, the Census Project information is presented in a downloadable Excel spreadsheet format. The records from 1870 to 1940 make it possible to look at specific individual information, and the 1950 to 2010 information is offered in summary form, showing more general demographic characteristics. Website listings for each census year include detailed notes about the summaries.

“It’s been fascinating to see how things have changed and evolved over the years,” Haulman said. “For example the way occupations are described. The term ‘engineer’ had a very different meaning in 1950 than it did in 1870.”

To that end, the Census Project also includes sections for research and presentations and charts and graphs, where summaries and analyses of the data are available. For the archive’s launch last week, four such documents were available, providing detailed information about the family of Vashon’s first Euro-American settler, Matthew Bridges.

Getting every bit of all of this information in order and ready to go live was primarily Larson’s Herculean task, and she devoted practically every waking moment to the project since December.

“What kept me going was how incredible I knew this was going to be once it was up and running,” she said.

With the information now live, Larson and Haulman have their sights set on writing research papers on the information that is now available and are looking for input from the community.

“Like any good ongoing research effort, the Census Project and the Vashon History project are works in progress,” Haulman explained. “They are continually revised and expanded. Community users are invited to submit their own analyses and observations of information from the site for possible publication online.”

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