Sarah Lim: Merced County in 1910 -- That year's census gives a picture of ag and residents

ModestoAugust 31, 2013 

Data collection about each of our lives, whether lawful or otherwise, is unavoidable if you use modern technology. The interconnection and documentation of our thoughts and our interests is captured and evaluated in a variety of ways.

Looking back at the 1910 census, we are looking at an old-world data collection tool that gives a less detailed picture of Merced County.

For historians, it would have been useful to have the amount of data that exist today 100 years ago so we could learn more about the lives of those who came before us.

Nevertheless, the 1910 census is a resource that gives the historians a snapshot of Merced County life in that time.

The 1910 census depicts Merced County as a prosperous agricultural community with land, water and wealth. With a population of 15,148, its population density was 7.6 people per square mile. Among the 58 counties of California, Merced stood 33rd in population and 23rd in assessed valuation.

Merced County, with $1,651 assessed value per capita, was ahead of other San Joaquin Valley counties except Madera. Merced City was considered one of the wealthiest county seats in the valley in its class.

Of 210 incorporated cities and towns in California, Merced, with 3,102 people, ranked 56th in population and 48th in assessed property.

Family farms contributed to much of the wealth. There were 1,856 farms in Merced  County in 1910,constituting 91 percent, or 1,162,167 acres, of the farmland, including land used for grazing and horticulture.

In comparison to other counties in the valley, Merced had the highest proportion of farmland. About 76 percent of these lands were irrigated. Merced was ahead of other counties, with the exception of Fresno, in its irrigation development.

Almost all of the farms were owned by whites. This conclusion is based on the fact that the 1910 census shows that 14,697 of 15,148 inhabitants were white; 75 were black and mulattoes; and 376 were Indians, Chinese, Japanese and all others. Mexicans were categorized as whites. A majority of the native-born whites were farmers, but most of the Chinese were farm laborers.

The Chinese were one of the earliest non-European minorities to immigrate to Merced County. Many Chinese settled in Merced County when they were recruited to build the Central Pacific Railroad in 1872. After the railroad, they were employed as farm laborers.

The 1910 census shows a decrease of the Chinese population and an increase in the Japanese population from a decade earlier. Because of the nationwide anti-Chinese movement and legislation such as the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the Chinese population decreased from 357 in 1900 to 278 in 1910.

To fill the vacuum of Chinese labor, the Japanese were brought in and the Japanese population increased from 43 in 1900 to 98 in 1910.

Many of the Japanese immigrants became farmers and started the Yamato Colony in Livingston. However, their land ownership was soon perceived as a threat to the white farmers. As a result, the state Legislature passed the California Alien Law in 1913 to prohibit Asian immigrants from owning agricultural land.

The Japanese were the fastest growing Asian immigrants in Merced County, but Swedes were the fastest growing European immigrants, according to the 1910 census. The Swedish population had grown from 32 in 1900 to 311 in 1910 because of the establishment of Hilmar Colony, the largest Swedish community in Merced County.

Despite the increase of the Swedish population, Italian immigrants remained the largest foreign-born whites in Merced County. The Italians came to settle in the Merced County area during the Gold Rush. Only a few struck gold. Most worked as shopkeepers, truck gardeners, railroad workers and farm laborers.

The influx of the great Italian migration took place around the turn of 20th century. As a result, Merced County observed an increase of foreign-born Italians, from 385 in 1900 to 1,101 in 1910.

Like other European immigrants, the Italian immigrants, with their hard work and frugality, soon found themselves to be able to buy land and become farmers. This was one advantage that the European immigrants had compared to the Asian immigrants.

Not far behind the Italians were the Portuguese, whose great migration from the Azores took place around 1900 as well. With a population of 593, the Portuguese were the second largest population of foreign-born whites in Merced County, according to the 1910 census.

They showed a great interest in dairying and came to dominate the industry in Merced County.

Although Merced County remains a farming community a century later, the make-up of its population as well as the distribution of its wealth has changed considerably. Future historians will surely appreciate the 2010 census and the variety of data that exists today just as we value the 1910 census.

To preserve Merced County history and support Courthouse Museum programs, please join us at the Historical Society's 23rd annual Western Barbecue and Auction fund-raiser at Lake Yosemite on Sept. 10. Central California Events and Entertainment will sponsor the music for the evening. Each ticket is $40. Tickets can be purchased in the museum gift shop, which is open Wednesday through Sunday from 1 to 4 p.m., or by calling the museum office at (209) 723-2401.

Sarah Lim is museum director for the Merced County Courthouse Museum. She can be reached at

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