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Interpreting the Evidence

Defining Community: Buffalo and the 1915 New York State Census

  • Historical Eras:

    Turn of the Century and WWI (1890 - 1930)

  • Thinking Skill:

    Historical Analysis & Interpretation

  • Grade Level:

    Middle School
    High School
    College University

  • Topics:

    African Americans

  • Primary Source Types:

    Census Record

  • Regions:

    Western New York
    New York State

  • Creator:

    NYS Archives Partnership Trust Education Team

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Suggested Teaching Instructions

Topic: Interpreting census data, Diversity

Skills: Analyze primary sources, Determine key ideas of primary sources, Determine meanings of words in context

This document shows the demographics of residents of an area of Buffalo in 1915, occupations they held, and the impact of immigration on this community.

Historical Context:
In 1915, Buffalo was a growing city whose economy depended upon industries that harnessed the area’s abundant water power. Immigrants came from all over the world to work in Buffalo’s mills, as well as to staff the service occupations that provided for the needs of the growing population. This 1915 New York State Census of Buffalo, housed at the New York State Library, contains a great deal of data on occupations, immigration patterns, households, and the neighborhood it comes from.

Essential Question:
What does this document tell us about the nature of individuals, families, and communities in an important northeastern industrial center in 1915?

Document Analysis:

1.       Read the census headings with the students to highlight the kinds of information that can be found in the document.

2.       Model the analysis of the first five headings, showing the students what information can be interpreted from the entries. Discuss the entries, asking questions such as:

a.       How are the people in this household related?

b.       How many immigrants are there and where are they from?

c.       How long have they been in the U.S. Are they citizens?

d.       How old were they when they came to the U.S.?

e.       What kinds of occupations do the people in this household have?

3.       Introduce the “Census Analysis” graphic organizer to the students. Explain that the organizer can help them keep track of information as they read and analyze it.

4.       Have students work individually or in partners to complete the graphic organizer.

5.       As a group, share some conclusions about what life was like in this community in 1915.

Exit Activity/Check  for Understanding:

1.       Students choose a person from the census and write a diary entry from his/her perspective about his/her daily life. The entry should be at least one paragraph long. Collect the paragraphs as students finish.

Optional Extension Activity

The following activity could be completed in order to extend students’ thinking and encourage them to make connections:

1.      Research widely held jobs in your community or look up a recent census. How are today’s jobs different from the occupations held by Buffalo residents in 1915?

2.      Speak to a person who immigrated to this country. Ask where their native country is and why they decided to leave. Why would immigrants have come to Buffalo in 1915? Did the person you interviewed come for similar or different reasons? If possible, record the interviews and then combine them into a class video about NYS immigration.

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