How you can overcome the tragically lost 1890 census

2-3 minute read

By The Findmypast Team | June 5, 2016


At some point every genealogist encounters this discouraging reality.

And if you haven't heard yet, we might as well just tell you -

The 1890 census is gone. Long gone.

Almost all of the records were lost in a fire in 1921 - at the time they were being stored in the basement of the Commerce Building. The fire was reportedly started by a burning cigarette, and the improperly stored records were destroyed in the smoke, flames and water as firemen put out the blaze.

There is a bit more to the story if you're interested - the National Archives has an excellent overview of the complicated conditions that led to the records being stored there in the first place.

Their article puts the harsh truth up front: It's hard to find a census "more critical to studies of immigration, industrialization, westward migration, and characteristics of the general population than the Eleventh Census of the United States, taken in June 1890."

And of course individual genealogists feel the pain of that loss as well.

But fortunately, not all is lost! There are many surviving records from that time period, so it's just a matter of tracking down what still exists and using that information to substitute for our tragically lost census.

Here are three ways you can find 1890 census substitutes:

State censuses

Many individual states took censuses between 1881 and 1899. On Findmypast, you will find:



You're bound to find evidence of you ancestors in the newspapers between 1881 and 1899.

Newspapers are especially important in explaining household changes between census records - you may find evidence of a death, marriage or other important event that explains why someone left the household between 1880 and 1900.

This was a period of intense labor struggle and a lot of economic turbulence, so there are no shortage of dramatic events that could have involved someone from your family.

The good news with newspapers is that there were plenty of local papers around in 1890 - it's best to begin searching as locally as possible, because home town papers tended to have the most room to cover local happenings at this period in time.

Make sure to read our newspaper search guide for more tips on uncovering the stories of your ancestors.

Newspaper search tips



Of course there's always something useful in the Periodical Source Index! If you're not familiar with PERSI, read our brief introduction and guide to using it. It's quite a powerful resource.

PERSI is an ever growing collection of genealogy periodicals, which contain tons of useful information for genealogists, including already compiled family histories and rare record transcriptions.

Determine where your family likely was between 1881 and 1899 and search for articles or record sets focusing on that time period. Keep in mind that the information you seek may be in already-compiled family histories too.

Important note: Don't just look in journals published in that geographical area - oftentimes journals will write about people or places far across the country - that's why PERSI is so useful. You'll be able to easily see that someone in Alabama wrote an article for her local periodical that pertains to your family research. It really is an amazing resource.

Learn more about the census

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