Beginning U.S. genealogists soon learn that the 1890 census records were destroyed in a fire in the basement of the Commerce Building on January 10, 1921. I wrote about this recently in What Really Happened to the 1890 U.S. Census? at https://bit.ly/32PUQyz.
Photo of the 1890 U.S. census taken after the fire.
Many people who would like to see these records just shrug their shoulders and move on.
A short search on the World Wide Web, however, soon reveals that not all of the records were destroyed.
In fact, the morning after the fire, Census Director Sam Rogers reported the extensive damage to the 1890 schedules, estimating that only 25 percent of the records were destroyed, with 50 percent of the remainder damaged by water, smoke, and fire.
Salvage of the water-soaked and charred documents might be possible, reported the bureau, but saving even a small part would take a month, and it would take two to three years to copy and save all the records damaged in the fire. The preliminary assessment of Census Bureau Clerk T. J. Fitzgerald was far more sobering. 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.”
Note: The statement “There is no method of restoring the legibility of a water-soaked volume” was undoubtedly true in 1921. However, had the fire occurred years later, many of the volumes could have been saved. Today, water-soaked documents can be freeze dried, removing the water without creating additional damage to the pages. Unfortunately, such technology was not available in 1921.
Speculation and rumors about the cause of the blaze varied widely. Many suspected that a carelessly discarded cigarette or a lighted match was the cause. Employees were questioned about their smoking habits. Others believed the fire started among shavings in the carpenter shop or resulted from spontaneous combustion. At least one woman from Ohio felt certain the fire was part of a conspiracy to defraud her family of their rightful estate by destroying every vestige of evidence proving heirship! However, the true cause of the fire was never proven.
At the end of January, 1921, the records damaged in the fire were moved for temporary storage. Over the next few months, rumors spread that salvage attempts would not be made and that Census Director Sam Rogers had recommended that Congress authorize destruction of the 1890 census. Prominent historians, attorneys, and genealogical organizations wrote in protest to Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, the Librarian of Congress, and other government officials. The National Genealogical Society and the Daughters of the American Revolution formally petitioned Hoover and Congress, and the editor of the NGS Quarterly warned that a nationwide movement would begin among state societies and the press if Congress seriously considered destruction. The National Archives quickly denied that the records would be destroyed.
By May of 1921, the records were still piled in a large warehouse without proper storage. The records were quickly deteriorating as summer heat approached in the non-air conditioned warehouse. Census Director William Steuart ordered that the damaged records be transferred back to the census building, to be bound where possible, but at least put in some order for reference.
The water-soaked records remained at the census building for nearly eleven years, apparently not well cared for. In December 1932, in accordance with federal records procedures at the time, the Chief Clerk of the Bureau of Census sent the Librarian of Congress a list of papers no longer necessary for current business and scheduled for destruction. He asked the Librarian to report back to him any documents that should be retained for their historical interest. Item 22 on the list for Bureau of the Census read “Schedules, Population . . . 1890, Original.”
The Librarian identified no records as permanent; the list was sent forward, and Congress authorized destruction of the remaining 1890 census records on February 21, 1933. Despite assurance by census officials in 1921 that the damaged records would not be destroyed, government bureaucrats did exactly that in the 1930s. Even worse, damaged and undamaged pages alike were destroyed. The entire process was not well publicized, with only minor notes buried inside governmental reports. The date of the actual destruction of the 1890 census records was never recorded although it probably was in 1935.
It seems sad that Washington bureaucrats quietly destroyed these valuable records without public review and scrutiny.
However, the story does not end there. The bureaucrats overlooked some records!
In 1953, National Archives found an additional set of 1890 census record fragments. These sets of extant fragments are from Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, South Dakota, Texas, and the District of Columbia. These surviving fragments were preserved and microfilmed. They are still available today, despite the “common knowledge” that the 1890 U.S. Census was destroyed in a fire.
Before you disregard this census, you should always verify that the schedules you seek did not survive. If you are looking for ancestors in 1890 in Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, South Dakota, Texas, or the District of Columbia, you might have a pleasant surprise. Be aware that the surviving records are only a tiny fraction of the total records, even for those states. Nonetheless, you won’t know until you check.
You can view National Archives Microfilm Publication M407 (3 rolls) and a corresponding index, National Archives Microfilm Publication M496 (2 rolls). Ancestry.com has obtained copies of these microfilms and digitized all the records listed there. Quoting the Ancestry.com web site at https://www.ancestry.com/search/collections/5445/:
These records have been extracted from the remaining population schedules for the 1890 Federal Census, which was destroyed by a fire at the Commerce Department in Washington, DC on 10 January 1921. The surviving fragments consists of 1,233 pages or pieces, including enumerations for Alabama, the District of Columbia, Georgia, Illinois, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, South Dakota, and Texas. The records of only 6,160 of the 62,979,766 people enumerated survived the fire.
The original 1890 census enumerated people differently than ever before that time. Each family was enumerated on a separate sheet of paper. 1890 was the only year this was done.
The only surviving fragments are as follows:
District of Columbia—Q, S, 13th, 14th, RQ, Corcoran, 15th, SE, and Roggs streets, and Johnson Avenue
Georgia—Muscogee County (Columbus)
Illinois—McDonough County: Mound Township
Minnesota—Wright County: Rockford
New Jersey—Hudson County: Jersey City
New York—Westchester County: Eastchester; Suffok County: Brookhaven Township
North Carolina—Gaston County: South Point Township, Ricer Bend Township; Cleveland County: Township No. 2
Ohio—Hamilton County (Cincinnati); Clinton County: Wayne Township
South Dakota—Union County: Jefferson Township
Texas—Ellis County: S.P. no. 6, Mountain Peak, Ovila Precinct; Hood County: Precinct no. 5; Rusk County: Precinct no. 6 and J.P. no. 7; Trinity County: Trinity Town and Precinct no. 2; Kaufman County: Kaufman.
Fields in this database include: given name, surname, relationship, race, gender, age, birthplace, father’s birthplace, and mother’s birthplace. If you cannot find your family in this database, it may be useful to look at Ancestry.com’s 1890 Census Substitute.
[This information comes from Loretto Dennis Szucs and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking, eds. “Research in Census Records.” The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy, rev. ed. Ancestry, Inc.: Salt Lake City, 1997.]