Family Tree Friday: The 1890 Census

In my last post, I mentioned that I was unable to use the 1890 Census in my research because it was destroyed in the 1920s. I thought it was worth taking a look at exactly what happened.

In 1921, the 1890 Census was stored in the Commerce Department. On the afternoon of January 10, 1921, a fire broke out. The exact cause was never determined, but it took several hours to extinguish. By itself, the fire and smoke probably caused a fair amount of damage. But the census was stored in the basement of the Commerce Department, where all the water used to put out the fire ended up. That, coupled with the fact that there were virtually no disaster or recovery plans in place, meant that the 1890 census was subjected to a huge volume of water for an extended period of time.

Ultimately, the 1890 census was deemed to be beyond repair and was scheduled for destruction. This is disastrous for researchers for a couple of reasons. First, the loss of this census creates a huge gap in the records. Many researchers hit a brick wall because they can’t connect the 1880 and 1900 censuses. Second, the format of the 1890 census was very different from those before and after. Each family was enumerated on a separate schedule, much like the modern census.

Fragment of the 1890 Census for Washington, DC
Fragment of the 1890 Census for Washington, DC

Many years after the 1890 census was destroyed, fragments of several states were found by the Census Bureau and transferred to the National Archives. While not much is left, there are approximately 6,000 individuals listed.

So the next time someone tells you that the records you are looking for were destroyed in a fire, or another type of disaster, dig a little deeper. Who knows, you might get lucky and find fragments!

Read more about what happened to the 1890 census in this article, originally published in Prologue.

6 thoughts on “Family Tree Friday: The 1890 Census

  1. i wish i could find my granfather in1890census his name james william matthews his farther was james matthews my gran was boened carith ky

    1. Hi Martha,

      None of the 1890 census from Kentucky survived. I did a quick search, just in case they were living somewhere else, but nothing came up under “James Matthews.” I’ve run into this roadblock with both sides of my family, so I know how frustrating it is!

      One thing you might be able to do is look at the 1890 Special Schedule of Union Veterans and Their Widows. Obviously this will only work if your ancestors were Union soldiers, but it’s an option if they were. Not all of the records for Kentucky exist, so be prepared for that as well. See our website for more information.

      Finally, many states took their own censuses, usually in years such as 1885 or 1895. It’s worth checking with the state archives to see if one was taken in the state you’re interested in.

      Good luck!

  2. So I saved some of my father’s rare books after he died. One of them is Volume 3 of the 3 part compendium for the 1890 census. Everywhere I look this book is not supposed to exist. The copyright on the book is even for that time frame. and I believe there is some water damage. Is it possible that when Books were ordered to be destroyed that not all were destroyed. I need some help with this as I don’t seem to know if I have an original or not. If you have anymore pertinent information on this please email me at

    1. Hi Joe,

      Sorry for the delay in responding to you comment. I suspect that what you have is actually a statistical summary of the 1890 census, rather than an original 1890 census volume. The main reason I think this is that you mention it has a copyright date – the original volumes wouldn’t have that. However, the statistical summaries were published by the Government Printing Office (GPO), so they would have copyright dates. Also, you call the book a compendium, which makes me think of the statistical summaries.

      We don’t appraise documents (or books) here, but if you contact the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America, they can put you into touch with someone local (or relatively local) to you. Then you can find out exactly what you have.

      – Katherine

    1. Hi Robert,

      Good question! The current Commerce Department building, which houses the White House Visitor Center as well as the National Aquarium, is not the same building that the 1890 census was housed in. The current building was built in the late 1920s, and opened in 1932. It was built at the same time as many other federal buildings in DC, including the National Archives Building (we opened in 1934/1935). The old Commerce Department building was not on the same site – it was located several blocks to the north. I don’t have the exact address at the moment, but it was north and slightly west of the White House.

      – Katherine

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