Do you want to know what happened to the 1890 US Federal Census Records? In this post, learn how these records were destroyed, and how to find what remains.
Census records are very valuable to the family tree researcher. In fact, I usually recommend that people who are new to genealogy use census records as a base for building their family tree back the first few generations.
The reason that we love census records is because they are a relatively objective record of our family history. Since they are taken at regular intervals, they are a helpful snapshot of our family at the time of the census.
We can often learn details about who was living in the household with our ancestors, including where they were born, immigration details, languages spoken, and even whether they could read or write.
Since census records are so useful and important, even if they aren’t perfect, we try to find every census record pertaining to our ancestor. In the United States, the federal census is taken every ten years.
This means that we should be able to find census data for our ancestors beginning in 1790 and ending in 1940, which is the most recent census currently available. The 1950 US Federal Census will be released within the next few years.
We should be able to find records for each decade, but most of us can’t. The 1890 United States Federal Census is a gaping hole in most of our research.
Why is the 1890 census missing?
Most of the 1890 US Federal Census records were destroyed due to two separate fires more than 25 years apart. The first fire, which occurred in 1896, damaged some of the special schedules for mortality and crime, in addition to others.
After the first fire, the records were inspected and the general population schedules, which is what modern genealogists would find most relevant to their family tree research, were found undamaged.
What was the first fire that destroyed part of the 1890 census?
Many of the institutions that we have come to depend on for the preservation of historical records, such as the National Archive, did not exist in the 1890s. In fact, the National Archive was not established until 1934.
Prior to the establishment of a special building for the storage of documents, the government stored records wherever it could. Just like you and I might do at our house, you could have found boxes of records in storage closets, basements, empty offices and attics – basically, anywhere that there was space.
This lead to records being at severe risk of being lost or damaged, which is exactly what happened to our beloved census records from 1890.
The second 1890 census fire destroyed almost all of the records
As a result of bad luck, the records experienced a second fire. This fire happened on January 10, 1921 at the Commerce Department Building, where the records were being stored.
The second fire and efforts to extinguish it destroyed or damaged almost all of the 1890 census records, leaving only bits and pieces of certain schedules for several states. What is even more tragic is that there was almost no effort to salvage the records that were damaged once the fire was extinguished, and the records that were left were destroyed.
No cause of the fire was ever found, even though there are plenty of 1890 census conspiracy theories.
Since the records were not destroyed until 1921, the government was able to use the census data for its immediate purpose, which was to determine how many seats each state in the USA should receive in the House of Representatives. While it is tragic that the documents did not survive to to be microfilmed or digitized, at least the census served the purpose required in the constitution.
Furthermore, the destruction of the records caused a chain of events that may have ended up saving millions of other important documents. The public was so outraged about the fire that Congress launched an investigation, which eventually led to political support for an agency that would be tasked with preserving our nation’s historic record.
What questions were on the 1890 census?
Some of the questions asked on the 1890 US census were similar to those of previous years. For example, the head of household and household members were listed by name individually, along with their race and age.
This type of information is very useful for building a family tree.
There were other questions that were more specific to this census year and unique to the time period. One such question was whether each person was “a soldier, sailor, or marine during the Civil War (U.S.A. or C.S.A.), or the widow of such a person?”
Which part of the 1890 census survived?
While the census records were almost entirely destroyed during the course of the two separate fires that occurred, some of the records did survive. Furthermore, those records were transferred to microfilm and have been digitized within the past few decades.
Partial records from the following counties and cities still persist and can be viewed. However, it is important to emphasize that there are only very partial records – perhaps only just a page or two in some cases, available for some precincts or neighborhoods within the following locations, and the damage from fire or water is often apparent:
- Perry County, Alabama
- Washington DC
- Muscogee County, Georgia
- McDonough County, Illinois
- Wright County, Minnesota
- Jersey City, New Jersey
- Eastchester and Brookhaven Township, New York
- Gaston County and Cleveland County, North Carolina
- Hamilton County and Clinton County, Ohio
- Union County, South Dakota
- Records from certain precincts in the following Texas counties: Ellis, Hood, Rusk, Trinity, Kaufman
We can access the available 1890 US Federal Census records that were not destroyed online, for free. Family Search is a wonderful website with millions of free genealogy records from around the world.
You can view the records through the following link:
I hope that this post has helped you understand more about exactly what happened to the 1890 US Census, what you might have been able to learn about your ancestors had the records survived, and who might be able to be “lucky” enough to find tidbits of information about their family within the surviving 2469 pages remaining.
If you have any questions about something that you read in this post, or if you are one of the lucky people with ancestors mentioned in the records that were not destroyed, I would love for you to join in the discussion below.
Thanks for stopping by today!
Tuesday 20th of December 2022
This was very interesting. Two German brothers on my maternal great grandmothers side immigrated to Nebraska in 1860 and 1879. I have not found any census info, prior to1900, on them through Ancestry.com other than a single state census for 1890. I was surprised that there were state census. It was the 1879 brother that ended up being the sponsor for my GG mother and her family in 1914 when they immigrated here. Her father! Which answered my gnawing question, why did they move here to Nebraska? Rick V