What Happened to the 1890 US Census?

Milton Stout Sr family 1890 of Oregon USA

The United States government has taken censuses of its population every 10 years since 1790. Today, there’s one glaring hole in these every-10-year resources: the 1890 census. Let’s take a look at what happened to the 1890 census and what substitutes can be used instead.

Why Is There No Census for 1890?

A census was taken in 1890. In fact, it was the most extensive yet, since it captured expanded information on nearly 63 million people. In addition to the regular population schedule that counted individual residents, special schedules documented manufacturing activities; mortality; imprisonment; people experiencing poverty and certain medical issues; and more.

Despite all the data collected, very little survives today. Most of it was destroyed in not 1 but 2 fires. Worse, a prior practice of making copies of census volumes to keep at the local level was not continued in 1890. Original census volumes, when completed, were sent to Washington, D.C. The Census Office used a new electric tabulating system to collect and compile statistics, but this process didn’t preserve information about individuals.

What Happened with the 1890 Census Fire?

In the 1890s, no archival storage facility yet existed for federal records. In 1896—only 6 years after the census—a fire damaged many 1890 special schedules, including those pertaining to mortality, “Crime, Pauperism, and Benevolence,” and “the Insane, Feeble-Minded, Deaf and Dumb, and Blind.” The damaged records were destroyed.

Years passed, and 3 additional U.S. censuses were taken: 1900, 1910 and 1920. On January 10, 1921, the older censuses (1790–1910) were in the Commerce Building, some on the fifth floor, some in a basement vault, and some stacked on wooden shelves outside the vault. The newly-completed 1920 census was in a different building, except for a few volumes being used on an upper floor in the Commerce Building.

1890 census fire basement NARA.jpg
Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-DIG-npcc-03345

At about 5:00 pm that day, Commerce Building employees noticed smoke permeating the building through the pipes. Workers alerted the fire department and evacuated the building. Firemen flooded the smoke-filled basement from above through holes in the floors. It took more than 4 hours to extinguish the fire. Late that night, workers opened windows to let smoke out. They left the sodden, charred volumes sitting in the flooded basement.

The next day, the Census Director reported that the 1890 census books, which had been outside the vault, were about 75% destroyed or seriously damaged. The vault protected an estimated 90% of the volumes from 1830, 1840, 1880, 1900 and 1910. (Of the nearly 9,000 damaged vault volumes, almost all were from the 1910 census.)

An unfortunate series of delays followed. Insurance workers had to assess the damage before Census employees could begin salvaging water-logged, smoke-damaged, and burned records. Meanwhile, they mildewed. Eventually, the 1890 census books were put into warehouse storage, despite wide protests from historians and the genealogical community. In the 1930s, the 1890 census was quietly destroyed.

What Part of the 1890 Census Survived?

Only scattered sections of the population schedules exist today. These are for just a handful of locales and precincts in Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma Territory, South Dakota, Texas, or Washington, D.C. Many pages have damage that may limit how readable they are, as shown in this example from the surviving census volume for Mound, McDonough, Illinois.

Image of page from 1890 US Census, Mound Township, McDonough County, Illinois

Fortunately, a large portion of 1 of the special census schedules survived, too: an enumeration of Civil War veterans and widows. Records exist for about half of Kentucky and the rest of the states alphabetically through Wyoming, as well as Washington, D.C., and scattered places in a few other states.

What 1890 Census Substitutes Exist?

Many people won’t find their family in what’s left of the 1890 census. If your family lived in the United States during this era, try to locate them in both the 1880 and 1900 censuses. Compare the entries. Were they living in the same place? What household members changed? Look for birth, marriage, or death records for those who may have been born, married, or died during this time span.

Then see what additional 1890 census substitute records may exist for them. Depending on where they lived, these might include city directories, voter records, school records, church records, or even naturalization papers. Subscription website Ancestry.com offers members an 1890 census substitute collection, compiled mostly from city directories.

Ready to explore the 1890 census fragment? It’s free here at FamilySearch.

About the Author
Sunny Jane Morton teaches family history to global audiences as a speaker and writer. She is a contributing editor at Family Tree Magazine (U.S.) and content manager for Your DNA Guide. She is co-author of How to Find Your FamilyHistory in U.S. Church Records and author of Story of My Life: A Workbook for Preserving Your Legacy. Find her at www.sunnymorton.com.