Literacy rates in the antebellum Shenandoah Valley

Posted on September 12, 2013 by


*UPDATE: Actually, though they weren’t part of the 1860 census, the numbers of those who could not read and/or write were tallied in the census for both 1840 and 1850. I will probably tally the numbers from that census to compare with the numbers shown in the 1870 census.

I’m sorry to say, there are no numbers available in the census records prior to 1870, which would lend support to a literacy/education study. Still, at least with the 1870 census, we’re able to grab somewhat of a snapshot of what literacy rates were like only ten (maybe twenty) years before.

County Total population Total who cannot write Age 10 and up who cannot read
Augusta 28,763 4,928 (17%) 3,993 (14%)
Berkeley 14,900 2,370 (16%) 1,756 (12%)
Clarke 6,670 2,152 (32%) 1,933 (29%)
Frederick 16,596 3,042 (18%) 2,285 (13%)
Jefferson 13,219 3,176 (24%) 2,727 (21%)
Page 8,462 2,501 (30%) 1,755 (21%)
Rockbridge 16,058 2,290 (14%) 2,152 (13%)
Rockingham 23,668 2,998 (13%) 2,384 (10%)
Shenandoah 14,936 940 (6%) 700 (5%)
Warren 5,716 1,455 (25%) 1,261 (22%)

There are a couple of things I’d like to point out.

First… though it seems to make sense that the census was using the same age factors… for those who could not write… as those who could not read. Yet, that isn’t made clear.

Second… note that the numbers of those who could not write always exceeds those who cannot read. Though Page County exhibits the highest range of difference (9%) between the two groups, the average was about 3%.

Third… Shenandoah County stands out as having an exceptionally high rate of literacy, as compared to all other counties. Clarke County has the lowest literacy percentage, followed by Page, Warren and Jefferson.

Next, I’d like to show how Valley counties stack-up against counties to the north, in Maryland and Pennsylvania. Because of a comparable involvement in agriculture (not to mention the comparable cultural background), I’m using Washington and Frederick, in Maryland, and Cumberland and Franklin, in Pennsylvania. Even so, notice that the total population of all four of these counties exceeds (significantly) figures shown for the Shenandoah Valley (only Augusta and Rockingham come close in total population of any of the four counties in Md. and Pa.).

County Total population Total who cannot write Age 10 and up who cannot read
Washington Co., Md. 34,712 5,458 (16%) 3,489 (10%)
Frederick Co., Md. 47,572 7,008 (15%) 5,263 (11%)
Cumberland Co., Pa. 43,912 2,134 (5%) 1,213 (3%)
Franklin Co., Pa. 45,365 2,634 (6%) 1,802 (4%)

While the population is much higher in all four of these counties, I find the percentages for those who could not read and/or write of interest. When we consider those who could not write, Washington and Frederick Co., Maryland are about the same as half of the counties in the Shenandoah Valley. On the other hand, for those who could not read… excepting Rockingham and Shenandoah counties… the Maryland counties show far better percentages. The Pennsylvania counties, however, show a significant difference overall.

Now, the first thing that comes to mind is that there should be clarification about these numbers. After all, when considering the level of education among former slaves. If I’m looking for the literacy rate among whites in the antebellum Shenandoah County, I need to look deeper. Once again… let’s look at some numbers…

County Total Population Caucasians, age 10+ who could not write African-Americans, age 10+ who could not write
Augusta 28,763 1,367 (5%) 3,561 (12%)
Berkeley 14,900 1,294 (9%) 1,053 (7%)
Clarke 6,670 695 (10%) 1,457 (22%)
Frederick 16,596 1,237 (7%) 1,787 (11%)
Jefferson 13,219 963 (7%) 2,213 (17%)
Page 8,462 1,850 (22%) 913 (11%)
Rockbridge 16,058 166 (1%) 2,123 (13%)
Rockingham 23,668 1,882 (8%) 1,116 (5%)
Shenandoah 14,936 604 (4%) 336 (2%)
Warren 5,716 756 (13%) 749 (13%)

Again, keep in mind my intent to get some idea of the literacy rate of the Shenandoah Valley’s white antebellum population… and yet, there is bonus material here. I’ll get to the bonus part in a minute. In the meantime, regarding the white antebellum population… (and, of course, keeping in mind that these figures are from 1870, but could suggest there was something comparable as far back as 1850… if not before).

The literacy rate isn’t bad. Though I don’t show the stats here, for the most part, figures from the Valley are comparable to what you would find in Washington and Frederick County, Maryland. For that matter, Augusta is only 1% above what one would find (4%) in Franklin County, Pa. At 4%, Shenandoah County even matches Franklin County.

Rockbridge County, however, at 1%, stands even above Cumberland County, Pennsylvania’s numbers (3%). (see green highlights in “caucasian” column, for both Shenandoah and Rockbridge counties).

What shocks me in this examination is the 22% unable to write among the the white population for Page County, which is the worst level in the Shenandoah Valley, and on par with the percentage of African-Americans in Clarke County (see red highlights for Page and Clarke).

Alright… about that bonus material found in the stats for African-Americans. Now, it IS 1870, and we have no idea how many African-Americans left the Shenandoah Valley between 1860-1870, but, for those who were present in 1870, Shenandoah County is showing an exceptional stat (only 2%) regarding the numbers who could not write. I wonder if that is a reflection of the postwar education system or the efforts made even before the war… or both. At 5%, Rockingham doesn’t fall far behind (see green highlights in African-American column, for both Shenandoah and Rockingham counties). Clarke, on the other hand… is that a reflection of the fact that there were such a heavy number of slaves in Clarke (percentage-wise) as compared to the other Valley counties? Furthermore, is the German influence in the central Valley reflected upon the numbers we see in Shenandoah and Rockingham counties, and yet the Tidewater English in Clarke stats? It would take more work, and it’s outside the scope of my examination… but fascinating enough… at least to me. Notice also (see blue highlights) that the percentage of whites who could not write exceeds the number of African-Americans, in both Berkeley and Rockingham.

O.K., so, as “reading and writing” goes, in the 1870 census, the major emphasis was placed on writing, but, at an average of only 3% difference, I think we can still get an idea that the ability to read wasn’t too much different. In short, I’m positive that this stat-finding venture was time well spent, in getting a better idea of the literacy rate among whites in the antebellum Shenandoah Valley.