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.
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.