For amateur genealogists, there's nothing quite as frustrating as discovering the answer to a question about your ancestor can only be found in the missing 1890 census. This hugely important data collection about the American population was destroyed in a fire in 1921. A few tiny fragments of the census survived the fire and the clean-up efforts, and you can access these online.
The Missing Decade
The 1890 Census is a terrible loss for genealogists. According to the blank form available from the Mid-Continent Public Library, the 1890 United States Federal Census included the following information about each family:
- Family name and street address
- Name, race, age, sex, and marital status of each person in the household
- Whether each individual had served in the military
- Each person's place of birth as well as the place of birth of each of their parents
- Employment and school attendance for each person
- Whether each person could read or write and whether they suffered from a disability
- Information about immigration
In addition, this census helped to trace family migration in the years following the Homestead Act. If a family moved during the 1880s, their location would have been recorded in the 1890 Census. Since most of that census is destroyed, it creates a 20-year gap in the migration record.
The 1890 Census: Outside the Vault
The National Archives' Prologue Magazine reports that storage of the census documents was a major factor in their destruction. Although things are very different today, no one considered disaster recovery when storing documents in the 1920s. This oversight is likely directly responsible for the loss of these vital documents.
Due to space constraints, there was no room for the 1890 Census inside the fireproof and waterproof vault in the basement of the Commerce Building in Washington, DC. Instead, the Census volumes rested in orderly rows on wooden shelves outside the vault.
Ravaged by Fire and Water
On January 10, 1921, a Commerce Building fireman noticed that there appeared to be smoke coming from the boiler room in the basement. Smoke was seeping into the file room, where the Census records were stored. Within half an hour, the fire department arrived and began efforts to put out the blaze. The firemen pumped water into the building's cellar to put out the fire, eventually totaling 20 streams. According to the 1920 Fire Protection Service manual, this amounted to about 4,500 gallons per minute. All this water was very effective at putting out the blaze, but it did additional damage to the delicate records.
Recovery Efforts Delayed
Prologue Magazine reports that Census Director Sam Rogers was initially positive about the possibility of recovering the records. He stated that a quarter of the census had been totally destroyed but that half of the remaining files might be restored with concerted effort. However, a few days later, he expressed frustration that he was not allowed to work on recovering the volumes due to insurance concerns.
At the end of January 1921, officials moved the remains of the 1890 census to another building for storage. Reportedly, no one had attempted to recover the data, and the records remained at this facility through May of 1921. After that time, archivists moved the records back to the Commerce Building and tried to salvage what they could from the volumes.
Ruined Records Destroyed
In 1933, the original water- and fire-damaged records were included on a list of documents to be destroyed. Congress approved the list, including the destruction of the 1890 Census, on February 21, 1933. The actual destruction of the records took place in 1934 or 1935. There appears to have been little resistance to the idea of destroying the damaged records.
Remaining 1890 United States Federal Census Fragments
According to the United States Census Bureau, a few portions of the original 1890 Census survived the fire. Fragments from the following areas still exist:
- Perry County, Alabama
- Washington, DC
- Muscogee County, Georgia
- McDonough County, Illinois
- Wright County, Minnesota
- Hudson County, New Jersey
- Westchester and Suffolk Counties, New York
- Gaston and Cleveland Counties, North Carolina
- Hamilton and Clinton Counties, Ohio
- Union County, South Dakota
- Ellis, Hood, Rusk, Trinity, and Kaufman Counties, Texas
How to Search the 1890 Census Fragment
Prologue Magazine reports that the surviving files from the 1890 Census contain 6,160 names. This is a tiny portion of the almost 63 million people living in the United States in 1890. However, your ancestor's name may be one of those that was preserved.
You can search the 1890 Federal Census for free at FamilySearch. Simply enter as much information as you can about your ancestor, including name, gender, race, residence, and relationship to the head of the household.
Context for the Loss
The information lost in the 1921 fire of the Commerce Building can never be replaced. The missing 1890 Census will continue to frustrate genealogists for years to come; however, knowing a bit about the circumstances surrounding the fire can at least provide context for the loss. Additionally, this devastating event spurred better disaster recovery and document storage procedures, ensuring that the same fate would not befall other important documents.