Searching for Servants

1850 census for Cambridge, MA, handwritten in cursive
Excerpt of 1850 census for Cambridge, MA

Searching for Servants

What do you do if you want to learn about someone from the past, but they did not write a journal or leave many written records? Historians are still able to learn a great deal about these people through historic documents, like census records. A census is a survey that counts every person living in a country at a given time and is done every ten years in the United States. 2020 is a census year!

Complete this activity to learn how to read a census record and become a history detective!



  1. Take a close look at the census record.
  2. Answer the questions on the History Detective Research Log to see what you can discover about these people from the past.
  3. Once you're done, take a look at the personal profiles below to learn more about the people in the census record!

If you have trouble with the cursive handwriting, ask another person to help you out!

You can use these same questions to explore any census record and even become a history detective for your own family. Check out the National Archives and Records Administration for access to more census records and to learn the basics of genealogy, the study of family history.

According to the 1850 census, Mary Dunn was a 29-year-old female living in the Longfellow house. She was born in Newfoundland in around 1820 and could not read nor write. She is one staff member of four who was listed as living on site. Her occupation is not listed on the census, but we know from family letters that mention her that she was employed as a nurse for young Charley and Erny Longfellow. She had a close relationship with the two boys, especially Erny, who wanted her to be his valentine in 1849. Mary even helped nurse Baby Fan, the Longfellow’s daughter who died when she was a year and a half.

Looking at Longfellow’s account books (Volume 1 and Volume 2), we can learn that Mary Dunn was employed by the Longfellows from October 1846- September 1850, a total of 4 years. She earned about 29¢ a day and lived onsite, most likely in the attic of the house.

Mary left the Longfellows in 1850 to help take care of her widower brother’s children. She seems to have eventually found a job in a “spice establishment” the next year, according to one of Fanny Longfellow's letters. Even after she stopped working for the Longfellow’s, she kept in touch. Henry Longfellow records giving Mary Dunn $71.50 in charity over 17 years.

According to the 1850 census, Mary Patten was a 58-year-old woman who lived on site. She was born in Ireland around 1792. She could not read nor write. She is listed among four servants who lived in the Longfellow house as well, but her occupation is not listed.

We know from Fanny Appleton Longfellow’s letters and journals, though, that Mary Patten was a cook and had known Fanny since she was a little girl. Mary worked in the Appleton household at 39 Beacon Street in Boston Massachusetts as their cook, where she took “great pride & pleasure in her office.” She was hired to work for the Longfellows in September 1845. She worked for the Longfellows for a decade, according the Longfellow’s account books (Volume 1 and Volume 2).

Mary Patten made a new life for herself in American, but seemed to miss Ireland at times. When she saw a spring of holly during the holidays in 1848, she “came sailing out of her kitchen, with a host of tender memories tugging at her heart-strings, the moment she heard [Fanny] has such a treasure."

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Last updated: May 18, 2020