The 1890 census is often thought to have been completely destroyed by an early January 1921 fire, but that is not exactly correct. An estimated 25 percent of the census was destroyed and another 50 percent did suffered fire, smoke and water damage. But the real cause of its demise was not a fire, but rather the lack of care. After the fire occurred, preservation wasn’t high on the list of tasks of the current census director, Sam Rogers. After the fire was out and the first responders left, Rogers wouldn’t allow anyone to touch the1890 census until insurance adjusters had examined the overall damage.
The census was basically “forgotten” and set aside while the questions of the fire’s origins were being debated and investigated. Meanwhile, the still soggy, “charred about the edges” original and only copies of the 1890 schedules remained in ruins. At the end of January, 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 Rogers had recommended that Congress authorize destruction of the 1890 census. Prominent historians, attorneys, and genealogical organizations wrote to the new Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, the Librarian of Congress, and other government officials in protest and pushed for a national archival building.
Although their calls were being heard, no action was being taken and in December 1932 with no archival building in sight, 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. On that list, item 22 for the Bureau of the Census read “Schedules, Population . . . 1890, Original.” For some reason unknown, the Librarian identified no records as permanent, and the list was sent forward with Congress authorizing destruction on Feb. 21, 1933. At least one report states the 1890 census papers were finally destroyed in 1935, and a small scribbled note found in a Census Bureau file states “remaining schedules destroyed by Department of Commerce in 1934.
Heartbreaking, I know!
But all was not lost… some fragments of the 1890 census have been found that document just over 6,000 – actually, to be exact, some 6,160 individuals. Even with this limited amount of information, the 1890 Census could still be hugely helpful to a researcher who is lucky enough to have had ancestors who lived in the geographical locations that were saved. Family Search – familyserach.org – offers the complete 1890 census fragments online… for FREE. Both a searchable index and images are available.
According to the National Archives, the available locations are:
- Parts of Perry Co., Alabama
- Parts of the District of Columbia
- Columbus, Muscogee Co., Georgia
- Mound Twp., McDonough Co., Illinois
- Rockford, Wright Co., Minnesota
- Jersey City, Hudson Co., New Jersey
- Eastchester, Westchester Co., New York
- Brookhaven Twp., Suffolk Co., New York
- Parts of Cleveland Co., North Carolina
- Parts of Gaston Co., North Carolina
- Cincinnati, Hamilton Co., Ohio
- Wayne Twp., Clinton Co., Ohio
- Jefferson Twp., Union Co., South Dakota
- Parts of Ellis Co., Texas
- Parts of Hood Co., Texas
- Kaufman, Kaufman Co., Texas
- Parts of Rusk Co., Texas
- Trinity Town and parts of Trinity Co., TX
So, if you are fortunate enough to have family members living in those areas be sure to give what’s left of the 1890 a look!
The 1890 Census Fragment
You will notice that the 1890 images look quite different than other enumerations. The 1890 census was the only one to include just one family per page. It also used a vertical layout with wider columns.
The 1890 Census of Union Veterans and Widows of the Civil War
The second section of the 1890 Census was a special enumeration of Union (and some Confederate) veterans, and is very large with 90,000+ images offered online. This remaining section of the 1890 census is even more valuable because it is so vast and much of it has survived.
The National Archives explains that the Pension Office requested the special enumeration to help Union veterans locate comrades to testify in pension claims and to determine the number of survivors and widows for pension legislation. Some congressmen also thought it scientifically useful to know the effect of various types of military service upon veterans’ longevity. To assist in the enumeration, the Pension Office prepared a list of veterans’ names and addresses from their files and from available military records held by the War Department. The superintendent of the census planned to print in volumes the veterans information (name, rank, length of service, and post office address) compiled from the 1890 enumeration and place copies with libraries and veterans organizations so individuals could more easily locate their fellow veterans.
Although the goal was to record Union veterans and widows, some Confederate soldiers were also included so check this database even if your ancestor fought on the side of the south. There are also some veterans from the War of 1812 listed, as well as veterans of the Mexican War and even the Seminole War (1828-1833)
Unfortunately, the records for the states of Alabama through Kansas (alphabetically) are now mostly lost, but records remain from all states from Kentucky through Wyoming. This includes:
- U.S. Navy Vessels and Navy Yards
- Washington, DC
- Kentucky (part)
- New Hampshire
- New Jersey
- New Mexico
- New York
- North Carolina
- North Dakota
- Oklahoma and Indian Territories
- Rhode Island
- South Carolina
- South Dakota
- West Virginia
Because this record set contains a vast number of individuals there is a good chance that you may locate an ancestor. Finding one may mean access to military information on the veteran or his widow’s name, his rank, date of enlistment, date of discharge, address, disability incurred by the veteran, special notes and often more.
For more information on the 1890 Census fire, the National Archives published an article, “First in the Path of the Firemen: The Fate of the 1890 Population Census,” in its Spring 1996 Prologue.