Closer Look

19th century census focus of novel “Counting Souls”

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Deena Bouknight

At the Cowee School Arts & Heritage Center’s monthly Where We Live: History, Nature and Culture Speaker Series, author Donald Buchanan shared about his debut novel “Counting Souls.” He spoke about how he was inspired to write the book and how it provides readers with a glimpse back into an important segment of Macon County’s early history. 

“It was definitely a labor of love,” said Buchanan (pictured above), who retired in 2016 from a 31-year career with IBM and set about writing his novel the next day. In fact, the plot for “Counting Souls” has essentially been percolating since he was a child growing up visiting his grandparents’ “very isolated” 40-acre farm in Cherokee County, North Carolina. It was there on his grandparents’ front porch, that he learned that some of his relatives were counted as part of the 1830 Macon County census, since what is now Cherokee County was in the 19th century a part of Macon County. 

“Counting Souls” focuses on a lawyer/farmer who is hired as a federal census taker for an area that was mostly wilderness and included Cherokee people, settlers, plantation owners, and enslaved people. 

Buchanan explained that while census-taking in modernity requires a few minutes to fill in a mailable card, census-taking in 1830 involved information accumulated by visiting each individual and family. The book’s main character must leave his wife and two children and travel for six months to find all the living “souls” in the wilds of the Appalachian Mountains, venturing into “hollers” and valleys and making the arduous climb to remote peaks and pinnacles. 

“Counting Souls” is, in some ways, a tribute to Buchanan’s ancestors’ way of life – especially his grandfather, a farmer who was satisfied to cultivate his land and never travel or drive an automobile. Since Buchanan lost his own father at age 10, his grandfather became like a father to him. 

“To honor him, I had for years been doing genealogy. And, strangely enough, the 1830s census had my family members in it who lived in Macon County. It began to occur to me that whoever the census taker was at that time would have met every one of my ancestors. So, I wondered who that guy was. Much about the characters and the stories in the book are inspired by those porch stories my grandparents shared when I was growing up.”

Through extensive research, Buchanan learned that the 1830 census taker was a man named Thomas Love Jr., whose family had fought in the Revolution and had been given land grants in North Carolina and Tennessee. Besides the characters of Thomas Love and Isaiah (a former Monticello slave tasked with running the farm while Love was taking the census), many other characters in “Counting Souls” are named for real people that Buchanan learned about through his research. 

Buchanan formulated the character of Love as a history lover, like himself. For example, when the character is invited into a family’s home on July 4, 1830, and learns that the home’s owner served in the Revolutionary War, Love tells the man, “It’s an honor to be sittin’ here with a Revolutionary War veteran on Independence Day … I can’t believe I’m sittin’ in the parlor of a man who … fought under Washington …”

To obtain a copy of “Counting Souls,” visit: