Blogging Bayport Alameda

August 25, 2015

Blast from the past: census error?

Filed under: Alameda — Lauren Do @ 6:05 am

Alameda’s Rasheed Shabazz (aka the Alamedan formerly known as Reginald James) is one person that can reliably be counted on to uncover and write about the uncomfortable parts of Alameda’s history particularly on race and housing issues.  On his tumblr page from two years ago there was an entry about Amos Mecartney one of the old families of Alameda.

I’m just going to excerpt the whole passage, but if you want to see the actual handwritten census document, click through:

Amos Mecartney was a prominent California real estate investor in the mid-19th century. Born in Pennsylvania in 1828, he first came west in 1849. After become wealthy from mining and his investments in San Francisco, he moved to Alameda’s Bay Farm Island in 1873. His grand mansion and role in building a school for children in Bay Farm Island is commemorated today with a street on Bay Farm Island: Mecartney Road. His role as an early Anglo settler looms large in the geographical imagination of Alameda.

However, Mecartney was a “Mulatto”, according to the 1880 manuscript census. On a subsequent census in 1900, he’s listed as white. The 1880 census enumerator may have made a mistake. He does list Mecartney’s wife and children as white, and their neighbors as Chinese, however, showing that distinctions were made.

It is also possible that Mecartney was “passing.” Passing occurs when someone uses their lighter hue to pass for white. In Mecartney’s case, his economic gains and his interracial marriage–illegal in California since statehood–would have been probable cause to cross the color line.

Mecartney is not included in other studies of Black San Francisco, suggesting he either was not black or successfully assimilated into the white world. It will be interesting to see what his contemporaries said of him. And I wonder why no other Alameda historians have mentioned this yet?


  1. from the book “BAY FARM ISLAND: A HISTORY”
    by Woody Minor

    Amos Mecartney, 1828-1903, was born in Pennsylvania, the son of a prominent banker and owner of an insurance company.The gold rush drew young Mecartney to California.At the age of 21 he sailedfrom Pennsylavania to San Francisco, arriving on August 5, 1849, and spent three years as a placer miner on the Yuba River before returning East.He came West again in the late 1850’s when gold was discovered on the Fraser River in British Columbia.Mecartney finally settled in San Francisco around 1860, where he proceeded to amass a fortune in general investments and real estate speculation.Although he made Alameda his home, his business brought him often to San Francisco (where he would stay in the Palace Hotel) and for the remainder of his life he made yearly trips to manage his exrensive real estate holdings in Kansis City, Chicago and elsewhere.Mecartney and his wife Dollie moved to Bay Farm Island in 1873, where they were to raise their five girls–Pearl, Meda, Myrtle, Mignon and Leta.In a diked enclosure off the western tip of the upland, on a portion of the reclaimed marshland he owned, near the Beach House, Mecartney built one of the great mansions of Alameda, a two story octagonal house with bell tower, surrounded by gardens.In 1875 he constructed a raised road paved in shell that ran diagonally across teh reclaimed marsh from the bridge to his estate.

    Comment by Captain Obvious — August 25, 2015 @ 6:11 am

  2. I wonder if any of his descendants are still around. A photograph might give some clues. Census takers often made mistakes, and it’s always been said that many of them were alcoholics, available to do the temporary work because they could not hold down a steady job. However, listing the race incorrectly is not as common as misspelling the surname or listing a male child as a female, for instance. If his father was a prominent banker and owner of an insurance company back East, one would expect his son would have gone to work for him and been groomed to take over his business. Striking out for the gold fields was something that men who had a comfortable alternative were unlikely to do. It’s possible that he was a younger son in a large family, had a falling out with his father, or simply wanted to make his own way in the world, but the facts do seem to support that there was something else going on. Remember also that in the West of the late 1800s, your past is what you said it was if there was no one around to contradict you. It was possible by a dedicated lettter writing campaign to check out someone’s story, but unless Mecartney had enemies who wanted to make trouble for him, it was unlikely that anyone would bother digging into his background.

    Comment by Denise Shelton — August 25, 2015 @ 8:20 am

  3. He could have been mixed race. I am Latino and Irish. I look more Irish but some of my brothers look more Latino. What do I put oh the Census is what I feel like putting.

    Comment by Jake. — August 25, 2015 @ 10:08 am

  4. A little off subject but has anyone ever read the Bio of Clarence King. He was the first Director of the U.S Geographical Survey and a famous Mountaineer and Explorer. He feel in love with an Afro-American and due to Miscegenation Laws pretended to be Black himself and adopted an Alias as a Pullman Porter to explain his extender absences. Really a fascinating story.

    Comment by frank m — August 25, 2015 @ 10:26 am

  5. And then there is the story of Sally Hemings, the mulatto slave woman who had several children by her slave owner, President Thomas Jefferson – quite the American scandal!

    Makes one wonder about the obsession we have in this country about race.

    Comment by Karen Bey — August 25, 2015 @ 11:17 am

  6. A friend of mine who works professionally as a genealogist once told me a story. A high profile client of hers hired her to do his family tree.

    Several months later, she sat him down and showed him his family on the 1870 census records. They were listed as mulattos and over time, they begin to pass for white. He was devastated and told her to stop her work and he never came back.

    I laughed when she told me the story – but really, it’s not funny. It uncovers what we have done to each other as it relates to the issue of race.

    Comment by Karen Bey — August 25, 2015 @ 12:01 pm

  7. The Alamedan formerly known as Reginald James. 🙂

    Comment by Rasheed Shabazz — August 30, 2015 @ 12:06 pm

  8. #7, Rasheed, I remember that young Reginald James, and I liked him.

    Comment by John P. — August 30, 2015 @ 2:07 pm

  9. I, too remember the young Reginald James. A lovely and passionate young man. Very smart.

    Comment by Kate Quick — August 31, 2015 @ 6:20 am

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Blog at