On The Wing

The Everlasting U.S. Census


In the 1880 census Charles Pack, the first settler on Herron Island, was recorded as living on Ketron Island.

Ketron is a small island on the opposite side of the Sound, across from Steilacoom. Having spent a lot of time researching Pack, I scratched my head. What would he be doing on Ketron? There was no other mention of him on Ketron, and county records always show him on Herron Island.

I kept staring at that census page. The page is obviously the clean copy of the enumerator’s field notes, complete with fancy calligraphy so in the end I decided that the clerk copying the worksheet just mistook “Herron” for “Ketron.” If the copying was done anywhere in the south Sound — Steilacoom, Tacoma or Olympia, say — the copier probably knew of Ketron, but not of Herron. Add some bad handwriting on the part of the enumerator and it’s not hard to see how the copier might have misread the notes.

Fast-forward 140 years.

I was out washing my truck one Sunday afternoon in front of my place on Herron Island when a woman in a little blue Honda drove up and asked me if I knew where Vancouver Street was. I was puzzled. No such street on the island, I told her. She looked at me as if I was lying; I pointed out that I’d been on the island for over 20 years and I knew all its street names. Vancouver isn’t one of them.

“How about Cove Street?” she asked.

Um, no, no such name either.

She thought for a few seconds. “Is there a Ketron Island or something like that around here?” she asked.

Why yes, I replied, there is, but that’s on the other side of the Sound, over by Steilacoom. I’m thinking, how could she possibly have ended up on Herron if she was supposed to be on Ketron?

She had an iPad on the passenger seat showing a map of Herron, so I said that if she zoomed out I could show her where Ketron was.

“I’m with the Census,” she said, “and I’m not allowed to mess with the map.”

I knew that census workers would be visiting the island in the coming weeks, so that didn’t surprise me. By then she was getting a bit nervous, acting almost as if she was afraid of me. I didn’t realize I looked that wild; sure, I hadn’t shaved in days and was in my beat-up yardwork clothes, but I’m always nice to intruders, I mean, visitors.

She finally decided it was time to move on. I showed her how to get back to our ferry and she was on her way, probably quietly fuming at whoever gave her directions to the wrong location.

And yes, Vancouver and Cove are indeed street names on Ketron.

Pity the poor census worker, when a 140-year-old mistake refuses to die.

Joseph Pentheroudakis is an artist, naturalist and historian who writes from Herron Island.