Genealogy Friday: The Missing 1890 Census Records

census takerWhat happened to the 1890 census?

For most states there is no 1890 census.   This makes it very difficult for genealogists in piecing together answers, because there is a 20 year gap.

Was the census taken in 1890?  Yes, it was taken on June 2, 1890.  The 1890 census was the first census to be tabulated by machine.

So why is the 1890 census missing?   The 1890 population schedules were housed in the Commerce Building in Washington, DC.  A fire occurred in this building in 1921, destroying the records due to fire, smoke and/or water damage.  This fire led to an outcry for a permanent National Archives [formed in 1934].  Unfortunately the records from the 1890 census that survived were not deemed “of historical importance” and all surviving records were destroyed “by government order” by 1934 or 1935.

Aftermath of fire where 1890 census records held
Aftermath of fire where 1890 census records held

The disappearance of the 1890 census is a shame and often leads to more answers than questions in understanding a family. A couple could marry in late 1880, have a child in 1881 and that child could marry in 1899, never showing up with his or her family of origin.

A few fragments of the census have turned up in later years.  These are very few and rare, though.

How can I make up for the missing 1890 census?

State Census—did your state take a census between 1880-1900?

City Directories—search in the area where your ancestor lived.  These often give the husband and wife’s name; location and occupation. This is the predecessor to the current phone book but gives much more information than the phone book.

Newspapers—these are a great way to search for news on your family, especially in smaller communities.

Church Records—these can give information on birth, marriages and deaths.


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