Many times, genealogists
come into The Odom Library and need the information that should be easily
available from the 1890 United States Census.
The census for 1890 was lost.
How come? What happened?
We can tell the disappointed researcher that the 1890 schedules were
destroyed by a fire in the National Archives in 1921...but, that's not the
whole story. Part of the records were destroyed in that 1921 fire, but the
rest were lost in government miscommunication and government red tape.
Over 47,000 enumerators worked on the Eleventh Census of the United States
in June of 1890. Once completed, the population of the United States was
more than 62 million people.
Before publication in 1896, the original 1890 special schedules for
mortality, crime, pauperism and benevolence, special classes and portions
of the transportation and insurance schedules were damaged and finally
destroyed by the Department of the Interior. According to the 1903 census
clerk, the general population schedules made it through this disaster in
It was on the afternoon of January 10, 1921 when the fire department was
called to the basement of the Commerce Building. The fire was contained in
the basement of the building, but water flooded the area. Nobody made a
survey of the area when the fire was extinguished. All of those records
were allowed to remain soaking in water overnight.
The next morning, damage was accessed and the census director, Sam Rogers,
wrote, "...a cursory examination shows that the census schedules from 1790
to and including 1870, with the exception of those for 1830 and 1840 are
on the fifth floor of the Commerce Building and have not been damaged. The
schedules of the censuses of 1830, 1840, 1880, 1900 and 1910 have been
damaged by water and it is estimated that ten percent f these schedules
will have to be opened and dried and some of them recopied."
These schedules were located in the basement in a vault that was supposed,
at the time, to be both fire and waterproof. The archivist had discovered
a small, broken pane of glass which allowed water to seep in damaging the
schedules located in low shelves.
The 1890 census did not fare as well. It was not in the vault, but
Director Sam Rogers reported to the Secretary of Commerce the damage,
"Approximately 25 percent of these schedules have been destroyed and it is
estimated that half of the remainder have been damaged by water, smoke and
The first report by T. J. Fitzgerald, a Census Bureau Clerk, was more
pessimistic. Mr. Fitzgerald said that the 1890 records were ruined and
that no method of restoration would be capable of restoring the records.
To this day, nobody knows the cause of that basement fire in 1921.
The remaining schedules of the 1890 schedule were abandoned by the
government and survived for many years. Rumors speculated that Census
Director Sam Rogers had recommended that the remaining records just be
destroyed. The public and historians were outraged and began a letter
writing campaign. Each letter received much the same reply - "...The
records were not going to be destroyed and plans were being made to
provide a suitable archive."
In May of 1921, the census still remained in temporary storage and the new
census director, William Steuart, reported that they would gradually
deteriorate. The records were returned to the census building for storage
at Stueart's order.
It would be ten more years before December of 1932 when the Chief Clerk of
the Bureau of Census sent the librarian at Congress a list of papers to
Included, as item 22, was "Schedules, Population - 1890, Original."
The librarian gave the ok to destroy the list of records, including the
1890 census schedule. Congress authorized the destruction on February 21,
1933. Only a small note in the census bureau file marked the official
demise of those records.
The note says, "remaining schedules destroyed by Department of Commerce in
1934 (Not approved by the Geographer.)"
We'll finish this sad, but interesting tale next week.