By Linda Kush
If your ancestors lived in the United States before 1890, you are sure to run into a frustrating gap in United States census records as you research your family’s history. Sadly, there is practically no 1890 U.S. Census available since these priceless records were destroyed by not one, but two, fires.
In 1896, a fire badly damaged special schedules covering crime, mortality, pauperism and other topics, although the general lists of names were still in good condition at the time. But then, in January 1921, another fire broke out in the basement of the Commerce Building in Washington, D.C., where these records were stored. Firefighters poured water on the blaze for four hours, flooding the basement. As a result, those documents that weren’t burned were completely soaked.
After the fire, they were moved to a warehouse. For a few years after that, historians and genealogy societies begged Congress to have the records restored, but eventually they were forgotten. The moldy mess was thrown out in 1934 and, with it, the names of almost every person recorded in that census year. You can read our full story about how this happened here.
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A few records were salvaged and are known as the 1890 United States Federal Census Fragment, but finding your ancestors among them would be like winning the lottery. Only 6,160 names are left of more than 63,000,000.
The loss of the 1890 United States Census is disappointing for genealogists and historians. The 1880s brought enormous change in the United States. More than 5 million immigrants arrived between 1881 and 1890, contributing to the explosive growth of cities like Chicago, which doubled in size during that decade. At the same time, industrialization created new occupations and began the steady population migration from the farm to the city. The lost census documented these trends in great detail.
For example, if ancestors were among the five million immigrants who arrived in the 1880s, the 1890 U.S. Census would have revealed where they lived, the names of their children, what kind of work they did, whether they had learned English, and many other wonderful details.
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But, thankfully, all is not lost. Other records from this time period do exist and can help fill in the missing details about your ancestors.
How to Fill the 1890 Census Gap Using Substitute Records
Ancestry.com, a paid genealogy research site, has compiled a records collection called the 1890 Census Substitute, which is a set of hundreds of databases containing records from 1885 to 1895. While not as comprehensive as a national census, it covers a lot of locations in that time period and – if you already have a subscription – this is probably where you want to start.
The good news is, however, if you don’t have an Ancestry subscription you can still access many of these records online for free.
The main elements of this collection are the 1890 Veteran’s Schedule, state census records, the U.S. Census of 1895 and city directories. Let’s take a look at these collections and where they can be located outside of Ancestry.
1890 Veterans Schedule
This data was collected at the same time as the 1890 U.S. Census but recorded separately for a separate purpose. The federal government set out to compile a list of Union Civil War veterans and widows of veterans to help administer pension funds, and some officials thought the information would be valuable for scientific study.
Sad to say, the Veterans Schedule from the states of Alabama through part of Kentucky alphabetically were also destroyed by fire. But other states still exist.
The schedules show the veteran’s name, where residing in 1890, rank, company, regiment or vessel, date of enlistment, date of discharge, and any disability incurred. And though the intent was to list Union veterans, some veterans who served with the Confederacy were included as well.
Read Family History Daily’s article on this collection (and the 1890 U.S. fragment) for help accessing these records at no cost.
State and Federal Censuses from 1885 to 1895
Some states conducted censuses during years ending in 5 to fall between the federal census, and in 1885 the U.S. government actually funded a census in many states – technically making it another federal enumeration. The records in Ancestry’s search collection include:
- Colorado 1885
- Florida 1885
- Iowa 1885 and 1895
- Kansas 1885—Riley County only
- Michigan 1894
- Nebraska 1885
- South Dakota 1895
But these are not the only state-level censuses available for this period. For more information about where to find other state census records read this guide. For help accessing the often overlooked 1885 federal census see this article.
City and County Directories from the 1880s and 1890s
The records included in these directories vary because the publishing companies that produced them set their own standards. Some list only heads of household while others also include other working adults in the household, such as adult children and boarders. The directories contain names, addresses, occupations, and sometimes where someone was employed.
The 1890 Census Substitute on Ancestry covers directories for more than 300 municipalities and counties, and records from Massachusetts are exceptionally rich (92 directories). However, there are other places to find city directories. This article lists numerous places where you can access them for free and provides more tips for using this valuable resource.
Many other collections are included in Ancestry’s 1890 Census Substitute and some can only be found on Ancestry. However, others can be located via FamilySearch and other sites for free – or via other paid sites like MyHeritage. Some of these smaller collection include only heads of household and lack those flesh-on-the-bones details we love like language spoken, country of birth, and literacy status. But a hit is still valuable, offering clues that might help you find more information from other sources.
If you don’t have a subscription to Ancestry and want to locate one of these collections try copying the name of the database and pasting it into Google to see where else you can access the records or check out this list of 50 free genealogy sites for places to begin researching.
One valuable resource the substitute does not cover in detail is immigration records, which can be a huge help during this period. Find a collection of articles about discovering and using immigration records here.
Linda Kush is a freelance writer and genealogist in Boston. Her book, “The Rice Paddy Navy,” began as a family history project. She is gratified that it has helped family historians whose fathers and grandfathers served with her father in China in the U.S. Navy during World War II.