What’s In A Source?

What happens when sources conflict?  Separating fact from fiction sometimes requires an understanding of not just the historical context of what we’re researching, but of the context of the source as well.

Our research for “Takings” took us on a complicated tour through decades worth of census information, oral history interviews archived at St. Mary’s College, and Farm Security Administration images—all of which produced varying shades of the life of the same man, John Dyson. Here’s what each of those sources said:


The 1930 Census: John Richard Dyson, age 62 and married to Mary L. Dyson, age 60. Two teenage sons, Herbert and Chester, as well as two grandchildren, Chester and Francis F., ages 9 and 5, reside with them.

John Dyson in 1930 Census

John Dyson in 1930 Census. Source: Nelson, Richard T. “The 1930 Census of St. Mary’s County Maryland.”

The 1940 Census: John Dyson, age 75, is married to Louise Dyson, age 69, and lives with their two sons, Aloysius and Francis, ages 18 and 15.

1940 Census showing the Dyson family.

John Dyson in 1940 Census. Source: 1940census.archives.gov

Oral history interview with Edith Dyson (SMCM Archives): John Dyson moved to New Jersey after he was evicted from his home at Cedar Point. Edith states that Dyson died on May 15, 1945, just three years after his relocation.

FSA photographs: detailed captions describe Louise Dyson as the mother of 15 children and John Dyson as having been born a slave. The collection includes images of John playing the accordion and picking pears outside of his home—pastimes both mentioned by Edith in her interview.

From LOC: “Mrs. Louise Dyson, wife of FSA (Farm Security Administration) borrower. She is the mother of fifteen children. Saint Mary’s County, Maryland.”

From LOC: “John Dyson, FSA (Farm Security Administration) borrower, playing the accordion. He was born into slavery over eighty years ago. Saint Mary’s County, Maryland”

The captions we found with the images of John and Louise Dyson, taken only one year before the Navy would claim their land, were poignant. If John Dyson had been born a slave, his FSA loan assisted in transitioning a man that had been born as property into a property owner.

Unfortunately, the math just wasn’t working. Slavery was outlawed in Maryland, Dyson’s birth state, in November 1864. If Dyson was 62 in 1930—as stated in that year’s census—he would’ve been born in 1868, four years after abolition. The 1940 census does a little better, bringing his year of birth closer to 1865.

However, the photographs taken by John Vachon clearly demonstrated that he had spent a good deal of time with the Dysons while documenting their progress towards land ownership with their FSA loan: Mrs. Dyson sits at a table with her carefully canned vegetables in the late summer heat. Mr. Dyson takes Vachon to his small fruit orchard and picks pears while golden light bathes his weathered face. The couple posed proudly in front of their home, seemingly mid-grin, as John tenderly rests his hand on Louise’s shoulder. Loan officers, keen to ensure their investments, checked in with borrowers often and likely established a meaningful rapport. Because of this likely relationship, we weren’t quite ready to discredit Vachon.

John Dyson picking pears outside of his home on Cedar Point. Source: LOC.

Census takers, on the other hand, worked within a very small window of time. Though it is possible that the enumerator knew the Dysons—Pearson was a small town, after all—it is unlikely that they had the opportunity to forge any meaningful relationship. The discrepancies between ages given for the 1930 and 1940 census are likely honest errors. Because slave births were rarely recorded, John Dyson may not have known his exact birthday. Further discrepancies between the names of Dyson children and grandchildren suggested that the census takers might not be the most reliable of sources.

We had a decision to make:  Which shade of Dyson’s life was the right one? Ultimately we chose Vachon’s, believing that the time he spent with the Dyson’s during an FSA site visit would’ve been more meaningful than a cursory visit by a census taker.  What would you have done?

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