Destruction of the 1890 Census

1890 United States Federal Census Fragment sample image.

Genealogists and historians have lamented the loss of the 1890 census for more than a century. When researchers inquire about the 1890 census, their questions are quickly dismissed with the explanation that a fire destroyed the records. The truth, however, is more complicated. The 1890 census records did sustain extensive smoke and water damage in two different fires (1896 and 1921), but the damaged records sat languishing in a warehouse until the 1930s when Congress ordered their destruction.

The 1890 census was unique for several reasons. For the first time, officials decided to gather data on a separate schedule for each family. Families answered questions about race, immigration and naturalization, the number of children born and living, and questions relating to service in the Civil War. It was also the first census that used punch cards and an electrical tabulation system.

After enumerators finished the 1890 census, the Department of the Interior stored portions in Washington D.C. in the basement of Marini’s Hall. On March 22, 1896, a night watchman discovered the rear of the building was on fire and notified the fire department. Firefighters arrived to find dense smoke pouring from the basement. Though they extinguished the flames before sunrise, the fire damaged or destroyed the special schedules for mortality, crime, pauperism, benevolence, special classes (e.g., deaf, blind, insane) and portions of the transportation and insurance schedules. The general population schedules, however, were safe and stored in the basement of the Commerce Building.

The Washington Post, January 11, 1921

On the evening of January 10, 1921, an employee at the Commerce Building noticed smoke rising through the elevator shaft and sounded the fire alarm. For hours, firefighters soaked the building with water to quench the flames. When the smoke cleared, archivists found 25 percent of the 1890 census schedules destroyed, while half of the rest sustained serious water damage. Government officials debated whether the burnt and waterlogged records could be salvaged.

This tragic fire spurred discussion about the need for national archives to hold public records. While awaiting funding for an archive building, Census Director William Steuart warned the damaged records would continue to deteriorate. Not much is known about what happened to the census records between 1922-1932, but in December 1932, the Chief Clerk of the Bureau of Census sent the Librarian of Congress a list of documents deemed no longer necessary and scheduled for destruction. Included in the list were the 1890 damaged census records. The Librarian approved the list and forwarded it to Congress who authorized it and the damaged records were destroyed. Ironically, just one day before Congress authorized the destruction of these records, President Herbert Hoover laid the cornerstone for the new National Archives Building.

In 1934, the National Archives Building opened in Washington, D.C. In 1942, officials found a damaged bundle of 1890 census records from Illinois that escaped destruction. In 1953, they also found fragments of records from Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, and the District of Columbia. These rediscovered records comprise just a tiny fraction of the 1890 census, leaving 99.99 percent of the original records lost forever. Visit Ancestry.com to see the surviving 1890 census fragments, or search Newspapers.com to see more clippings about their destruction.

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75 thoughts on “Destruction of the 1890 Census

  1. Hmmm, so that’s their story & they’re sticking to it! Interesting too, that the story is being posted on Columbus Day!

  2. Why hasn’t anything been done to find out who started the fires. Someone had something to hide.

    • I thought the whole thing sounded fishy…sounds like an inside job to me.
      What happened to the punch cards? Couldn’t they have been used to recreate some of the records?

        • Actually there were punch cards in 1890. They actually date back to 1725 when holes punched in paper tape were used to control the warp and shed of a loom. The tape was improved to cards in a line in 1804. They controlled the pattern in the of weave on the fabric.

        • Sure, there were punch cards in 1890. Herman Hollerith patented the system in 1889, used it for his PhD at Columbia and used it for the Census Bureau in 1890. His company, through a series of mergers, became IBM. IBM erected a plaque to him on the C&O Canal at 31st Street, NW, in Georgetown, DC.

        • From this article:
          “It was also the first census that used punch cards and an electrical tabulation system.”

      • It being the First Census, they should have considered having multiple copies in different places.

        • That wasn’t the first Census. The first one was in **1790**, not 1890. It was the first one counted mechanically.

      • agree with you. very fishy. Subject matter covered in the census may have also given a clue. Too much invasion of privacy by todays standards. Sounds like it would have been too big a job to dry out the records. Like in the Los Angeles Central Library fire. Many assets were lost or damaged and many were also salvaged.

  3. @Duae Damen

    Not all fires are arson. In fact, few are. Since census data is not public for many decades after it is collected, it is doubtful anyone with “something to hide” would go to such lengths to keep secrets.

  4. I’m curious, even though it was a federal census, did states not maintain copies of the data for their own records? It seems logical that states would have used the federal census data for their own use instead of reinventing the wheel. Especially for a census that contained so much detailed information.

    • From 1790-1880, copies of census records were required to be filed in county clerks’ offices. Sadly, the rules changed and this was not required for the 1890 census.

    • My limited understanding of census facts is that many states did their own census in “mid-decade” timing, i.e., 1885, 1895, 1905, and so on. They probably didn’t feel that the federal issue was any better than theirs.

    • From what I understand, some of the southern states did not ‘trust’ the feds, so made copies of this census. It sounded logically to me. I have two branches that it would have been the first census and the rest it did not matter. I am trying to locate what we consider the patriarch of my Husband’s father’s side. He was in Illinois in 1880, but where was he in 1890 we don’t know. We have no accurate birth date or location and no accurate death date or location.

  5. The part that really bites is this was the first census that my family would have participated in. My great grand parents info lost. Grandparents info lost. Fathers info lost.

    • Dan, I’ve gotten some good information from deeds It’s tedious work and as far as I know, there aren’t many on Ancestry but it might help you. I too have a brick wall because of a courthouse fire and it’s infuriating. Good luck with your search.

      • My dad’s birth record is also lost… to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. In those days vital statistics were maintained at the county level only.

        • My grandfather was told a fire at yhe hospital he was born at destroyed his birth record, but low and behold, ancestry has it and i can order a copy of it..what a blessing that was.

  6. Very interesting story! I never realized that the 1890 records were affected by fire. At least, it initiated the building of the National Archives Building!

  7. ->Jeff C.<- Not sure I see the "Partisan" comments you refer to, however I agree with the sentiments of loss and agree with the gratitude expressed for the erection of the Nat'l. Archives. Myself and my ancestors have done much to ensure and promote the expression of views aligned and contrary to our own. I find the only time I waste is that which "I" waste, then again I have the option of where, how and when to waste it. Just a thought… The loss of this source is in my view, simply tragic. Any tidbit found that sheds further light on my ancestors is a cherished bonus and a blessing! I wish you much success in your research.

    • It’s pretty much in the article: The first fire happened six years after the Census. The records weren’t destroyed, just water damaged, and there was another Census coming in 4 years anyway. The second fire happened 31 years after the original Census, and there were 3 other Census-takings in between. 25% of the records were destroyed, and half the remainder damaged, but no way to go back 31 years and get that info. Finally, 42 years after the original Census, the decision was made to destroy the remainder. And that is a real heartbreak here.

    • Having been a long time census employee, it takes several years (almost the full 10 years in between) to prepare for a census. By 1896, census employees were probably in full swing preparing for the 1900 census. In 1896, it would have been hard to try to recapture info from 1890, because of births, deaths, migration, etc.

  8. Not mentioned was that this was the first US census in which copies were not made for the states or counties, in order to save money. Also, reportedly, a test was performed on microfilming the wet, damaged records, without success.

    • I used to work in the Local Historal Society, and one of the biggest fears was mildew. It could spread quickly and destroy anything paper-y in its path. The records, having been soaked so badly, and damaged, may have been destroyed by a supercautious group of people who feared for the rest of the stored records. Once mildew gets going, it’s almost impossible to eradicate.
      It’s still a shame. My family in in there, too.

      • And that’s with with current methods of preservation.

        There was also the Wall Street crash in 1929, so I guess that at the time spending money on a lot of old official records from over forty years ago was a very low priority.

        From the point of view of government, the information contained in those records was likely irrelevant – though future researchers would come to mourn the loss.

  9. Thanks for the information and history behind the loss of these records. Such a shame that more couldn’t have been saved in some way instead of being destroyed so many years later. My husband’s line gets lost through this time period although we have made good guesses on the family line. Appreciate this blog note and reviewing the one attached census page. How thorough it would have been to have all the records! Such great detailed information!

  10. I mourn the loss of this Census. For many, and I mean 30 years , I was trying to find my grandfather’s first wife. I knew her name because it was given on his marriage record of his marriage to my grandmother. They were married in Michigan, and were both born in Michigan. The first wife was born in PA, which I did not know, and died in 1899. All the marriage records for Michigan are on film and I searched 20 counties, but nil. If I could have searched the 1890 Census I could have found her.
    As it happened their marriages showed up after the LDS Indexing program began. They were married in Chicago, what a leap, I would never have looked there. Is there any way the remaining census’ might be filmed and released for searching?

    • all are released up to 1950, with 1950’s to be released in a few years and successive ones after 70 years old (to protect privacy of the living I believe)

      • U.S. Federal Censuses are released 72 years after the census year. So in 2022, we will see the 1950 census. Something to look forward to!

  11. Indeed it would have been nice to have had 1890. My 2nd G-Grandfather died in 1879 & the 1880 census had my 2nd G-Grandmother living with relatives & it would have been convenient to know if she was still living with them in 1890.

  12. Before it was destroyed, this census was used as evidence in a legal case involving distant cousins of mine in Kentucky, establishing that they were the only people of their surname in their city. No doubt there are other scraps of information to be retrieved in unexpected places.

  13. I used to work in the Local Historal Society, and one of the biggest fears was mildew. It could spread quickly and destroy anything paper-y in its path. The records, having been soaked so badly, and damaged, may have been destroyed by a supercautious group of people who feared for the rest of the stored records. Once mildew gets going, it’s almost impossible to eradicate.
    It’s still a shame. My family in in there, too.

  14. So much was lost in these fires. It’s sad that no one did a closer look to see if any census file was worth saving. Reexamine the remainder of those files. If there was insurance, that money could’ve been used to hire workers to piece together any important data from those missing census files.

  15. I always thought that the Mormons would have copies of all families even though maybe not all the census. The Mormons have a lot of information passed down. Why were they not copied to the counties that people lived in from the states. Doesn’t DC share. No wonder on Ancestry.Com I can’t find information on my families from Pennsylvania before 1790 or up until 1918. I have a hard time with the name Brecht/Bright families. I thought there were in a vault no matter of fire, smoke or water. We need to desperately find ways to preserve and copy different places to be on safe side. How sad this is. For different counties in Pa the historical societies ask for money to provide. We should not have to for ones who pay and are members of Ancestry.Com. Also for people who can’t travel all the time to their home state. https://blog.newspapers.com/destruction-of-the-1890-census/

    • There were no federal censuses before 1790 because there was no federal government. There was no United States in 1780 as the colonies were still at war.

  16. The loss of the 1890 Census has dealt a big blow to those researching their family. It is lucky that those fragments of it that are left are available to those researching in those states. Unfortunately for me, they don’t help. However there are some states that did an in between state census at the 5th year. It doesn’t offer much family info, but you can establish that the person lived in the area at that given year. And sometimes it lists all of the family and their ages.

  17. Many states did have their “off-year” census (meaning any year between the Fed’s 10-yr. census). I believe New York had such a census (1891 or 1895) so it is worth checking on that possibility.

  18. One group that you can find in 1890 are living Union Veterans or widows who are eligible for pensions in the 1890 Surviving Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Widows Schedule. I found 7 ancestors from Western NC and Easter TN and wasn’t that a surprise for all of us.

  19. The lack of knowledge of some very fundamental elements of genealogy, history, and records management is astounding.

        • I think this has been an outstanding discussion. There are always going to be a few conspiracy theorists. lol. It’s sent me on a lot of interesting Wiki runs, particularly with the Hollerith tabulator/punch card stuff, the detailed list of questions on the Census, lots of things. I do wish those records still existed. Where’s Marty McFly and his DeLorean when you need them?

  20. A brick wall for some and a stumbling block for others. We all agree it is a tragedy that these valuable records are lost to us. I don’t believe that the decision makers of the past understood that a tool created and used by the government could be as important to the citizens as it has become. Had they foreseen the explosion of interest in genealogy , perhaps more care would have been taken. The searches will continue for most of us even without the 1890 census. Good luck to all.

  21. How sad that some clerk made the decision to put the “remaining” documents on a destroy list with no apparent inclusion of opinion from an archivist. Maybe he/she did, but we will likely never know.
    Some of my ancestors would have been in Oklahoma at that time – and possibly already in Texas. I will peruse the Texas documents closely. Great information.

    • In the U.S., there were very few professional archivists before the establishment of the National Archives. Records keepers were clerks, antiquarians, collectors, historians, etc.

  22. I looked for the 1890 census for Jewel County, Kansas and was told the courthouse had burned down. What’s all this stuff about public records buildings burning down? Seems strange to me.

  23. Schuylkill County PA has a directory made from that county’s 1890 census that was published after the fact. Not sure who has copies but the Schuylkill County Historical Society has a copy that I have used.

  24. A lot of Courthouses were burned during the War Between the States, or by Raiders, such as Quantrill.

    • It was Sherman and Sheridan, not Quantrill who carried Total War on civilians in this country. And their kith and kin took the same Total War to Europe resulting in the deaths of tens of millions and the destruction of public buildings and records.

  25. My maternal grand-mother’s birth info burned in a fire in Windsor, MA. (She lived to be 100!)
    She used info she had to get a birth certificate. I found other info through Ancestry’s census info. Her mother was older and adopted by her mother’s paternal grand-father! Thank you Ancestry 🙂

  26. I took the time to read a great many of these and I have been doing genealogy research for more than 50 years and I learned something from this. Thank you to everyone who posted.
    Marilynn

    • Yeah, but a bunch of counties are missing from the 1892 NY State Census, including, most notably, NY County (Manhattan).

      Nearly all of my relatives were living in Manhattan at that time. For me, the best 1890 federal census substitute is the 1890 New York City Police Census.

  27. Thank you, everyone, for all the information you shared on this subject. I learned a lot, too, and appreciate every piece of input. One never knows where a tiny piece of info will come from, but each little piece of the puzzle helps fill in the family story. Deepest thanks to all.

  28. Some state censuses for the time frame may have survived. And state censuses for other years might have valuable information not known before which could aid research in later records. I’ve found the New York state censuses to be helpful in this regard. Also some earlier censuses may be somewhat unusual and include extra information not found in other censuses of the same year. For example some pre-1880 censuses of Kentucky gave the county in Kentucky where they were born and sometimes counties in other states as well. Ditto some censuses in NC giving the counties in NC where they were born.

  29. Also not sure what they have (because I haven’t checked these categories of records) but the National Archives (UK) does have references in their online catalogue to American records. I’m concentrating on British records through my taking over the Chandler One-Name Study through the Guild of One-Name Studies, but, I did see references in their alphabetical listing to American records.

  30. I have had to track family lines for a national lineage society applicants, and have had to find alternate records. City directories, newspaper items, and land and probate records have all been helpful.

  31. I’ve tried several times to become a member of the newspaper. but for some reason it will not take my name credit card or my email.every once in awhile i reieive the newspaper ad on my ancestry. Thanks Beverley Biever Hope this will help

  32. After reading many of the posts it becomes quite clear there are many who don’t read for content. Many clearly don’t know about census’, its history, use and changing information contained within each iteration. Census are so vital to genealogy research, but should also (I think) be ‘taught’ in school – we are all ‘in there’ no matter our heritage. America the melting pot, counted, detailed every 10 years since 1790.

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