What Really Happened to the 1890 U.S. Census?

On January 10, 1921, a major fire broke out in the U.S. Commerce Building in Washington, D.C. The fire department responded quickly, but the building was already ablaze when the firemen arrived. A crowd of about ten thousand people quickly gathered and watched the flames and the efforts of the fire department.

Due to heavy smoke, the firemen were unable to get close to the flames. The firemen eventually chopped holes in the floor of the building and simply dumped in thousands of gallons of water, drenching everything below. Of course, “everything” included millions of paper records of the 1890 U.S. Census.

Hundreds of stories have been published over the years about the tragic loss by fire of the U.S. 1890 Census. Almost all genealogists studying ancestry in the United States are aware of the story. Indeed, most of the hundreds of published stories have been more or less accurate, although brief. Many details have been ignored. It is obvious, but rarely mentioned, that bureaucratic mismanagement was a major factor in the loss of the records. One fact has always been clear, however: the records of 63 million people were lost. Indeed, this was a loss of a significant piece of United States history.

Surprisingly, not all the records were destroyed.

The following morning Census Director Sam Rogers reported the extensive damage to the 1890 schedules, estimating 25 percent destroyed, and another 50 percent of the remainder damaged by water, smoke, and fire. That leaves 25 percent of the records more or less untouched. Even most of the 50 percent listed as “damaged” were believed to be readable. Rogers estimated it would take two to three years to copy off and save all the damaged records.

A few days later an assessment by Census Bureau Clerk T. J. Fitzgerald was far more pessimistic. Fitzgerald told reporters that the priceless 1890 records were “certain to be absolutely ruined. There is no method of restoring the legibility of a water-soaked volume.” His assessment probably was accurate for records stored in a building without air conditioning, containing tons of water-soaked paper records with no easy method of drying them out elsewhere. (Air conditioning and humidity control were almost unknown in 1921.)

Nonetheless, the water-soaked records were soon moved to another building as the original Commerce Building needed to be repaired. However, the new location also had no air conditioning or humidity control. The documents remained in the second location for several years as mold, mildew, and rot set in. Thirteen years later, the Census Bureau finally destroyed the remaining 1890 schedules. We can assume that most of the water-soaked, rotting documents were no longer readable by that time.

Surprisingly, most genealogists are not aware that about 6,000 of those records did survive and are available today. While that is only a tiny 0.0001 percent of the 63 million records of people who were originally documented, there is always a slight chance that your ancestor’s records may have survived.

A YouTube video featuring Roger Lee, also known as “The History Guy,” contains 12 minutes 36 seconds of information that is packed with details. The video also contains dozens of photographs made of the fire and of the events in the days and weeks following. This video contains more details about the fire and the subsequent events than most all the other published articles. Best of all, this video is available to you, free of charge. You can watch it any time you wish in the video player below as well as at https://youtu.be/hwFLuIYgEIk.

About Roger Lee, also known as “The History Guy”

Mr. Roger Lee

Roger Lee was a high school Social Studies teacher who wanted a quick and reliable resource to guide his high school students in the days before Google. He developed a guide on paper which was later expanded and, even later, became an online publication. Now Mr. Lee has made the YouTube video containing pictures and his verbal description of events that destroyed most of the 1890 Census.

Mr. Lee holds Bachelor of Arts degrees in History and Political Science from Washington State University. He also holds a Master of Arts degree from the University of Washington, Tacoma, in Educational Administration. He is a veteran educator, teaching Social Studies to a diverse student population at an alternative high school in Auburn, Washington, for ten years. Mr. Lee is currently an Assistant Principal at Auburn Senior High School, also in Auburn, Washington.

Roger Lee acquired the domain name “historyguy.com” in 1998 and soon thereafter trademarked “The History Guy.” In addition to his many YouTube videos, Mr. Lee operates a very popular web site at: https://historyguy.com.

8 Comments

David Paul Davenport April 15, 2020 at 3:02 am

Thank you for showing a photograph of just some of the damage caused by the 1921 fire. I had not seen it previously, and it brought tears to my eyes. In response to an earlier story from Mr Eastman about the 1890 census I reported that in the 1970s, when I was working in Washington DC for Congressman B F Sisk I did some digging to find out how the damaged 1890 census schedules were disposed of, naively believing, that if they had been buried in a landfill it might be possible to excavate and photograph them. if so, then a time would come when technology would allow the illegible images to be enhanced and made legible. Alas, I eventually learned that they were taken from the second location to the US Naval Yard at DC and incinerated. Among the little know facts associated with the 1890 census is that tabulating it was accomplished by the predecessor to IBM. Herman Hollerith had the contract to generate the statistics for the 1890 census and he did so using a mechanical tabulating machine and 80 column punch cards. His company merged in 1911 with two others for form International Business Machines. As of a few moments ago when I checked the internet IBM was ranked 31 on the Fortune 500 list of most important businesses in the world. And for those interested in movie trivia, IBM is “referenced” in the 1968 movie “2001: a Space Odyssey.” Shift the sequence of letters in the alphabet one character to the left and we have HAL, the computer than took over control of the space ship on which astronaut David Bowman. I have always loved this bit of trivia because my name if David and I earned my doctorate at the Univ of Illinois, Urbana, the “birth place of HAL on January 12, 1992, according to the movie. I found this web of coincidences(?) fascinating and haven’t forgotten a “bit” of it (this is where ya’ll laugh because I made a computer joke). Yes, I’m beginning to go crazy due to sheltering in place during this pandemic.

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Thank you for reminding us that even when we think everything should be all right – ….. happens! Next help explain to everyone what happened in St. Louis with our military records; mine included, which would have helped when it comes to benefits and or accountability. I don’t exist except for a copy of my discharge papers. CHB

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    David Paul Davenport April 15, 2020 at 2:40 pm

    Thank you Carl for your service. I have been told by a half dozen people (but none of any working knowledge of the July 12, 1973 fire in St. Louis) that some of the Army records were undamaged and all of the Navy and Marine Corps records survived. Details can be found at https://www.archives.gov/news/articles/archives-recalls-fire . But one should not give up all hope. What the fire took were the 20th century equivalent of what Civil War (and other 19th century conflicts) call “Compiled Military Service Records.” These had been assembled to facilitate pensions, the post WWII GI Bill, and the like. The destroyed service records can be compiled for a second time if researchers are persistent in their inquiries. For example, while the record of a service person’s hospitalization at various places on various dates was listed in the Record of that person held by the National Personnel Records Center at St. Louis, each military hospital that provided care for the active duty service person still has a record of that treatment. So if persistent one can “require” the NPRC staff to make inquiries at all of the military hospitals for the person of interest. I was able to get a record of my father’s emergency surgery for appendicitis on a US Army run hospital ship just after he was suppose to participate in the invasion of the Philippines, so one should never give up.

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Something I feel very fortunate about is the 1890 Cherokee Nation census is alive and well on Ancestry.com (and perhaps other services). Not only are my Cherokee ancestors included but also the white family of my 2G Grandparents, who had moved to the Cherokee Nation from Iowa in 1888. Perhaps other Indian 1890 census are also available.

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Michael Elwood Pollock April 15, 2020 at 1:46 pm

The article is quite informative on a number of points regarding how the 1890 census was tabulated, and the aftermath of fire, but failed to include details shared to me about 1977 by the late, great James Dent “Jimmy” Dent, Chief Military Records Specialist for the National Archives, in response to a question about the fire at the National Military Personnel Records Center, Jackson Barracks, Missouri, in 1973.
Jimmy said that both fires occurred the day before scheduled relocation of the records that were destroyed and he speculated that both fires were DELIBERATELY set for that very reason.

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    I apologize for a typo. I was referring to James Dent “Jimmy” Walker. For reasons that befuddle me, I was obliged to type my comment 3 times before I was able to send them and was accordingly too focused on sending the comment than proofing it. I have grown to dislike WordPress IMMENSELY.

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I’ve been very fortunate in relation to both of these losses. The 1890 Veterans Schedule for the portion of Ohio where my ancestral family lived still exists and my granduncle is listed on it, affirming that the family was still residing there. For the St. Louis records, while there are no personal records for my uncle, there was enough of his company records to affirm his presence and discharge from training camp (apparently he timed his enlistment such that the war ended before he was eligible to move on from training camp!). Not the full records one might wish for but enough to be helpful.

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Just found this post and haven’t had time to read it through, but had to mention my experience!. In some of the 1890 surviving records, “Special Schedule — Surviving Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines, and Widows, etc.” I discovered my ancestor listed with a line drawn through his name. There were several others with lines drawn through the names. Seems that the enumerator listed Confederate soldiers along with the Union soldiers. This entry gave me the location of his residence in 1890 and info concerning his war record.

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