The 1890 Federal Census

If your ancestors lived in the United States in the late 1800s, you may have found it difficult to find census data from that time period. I recently encountered this issue myself. When I went to locate information on my Great, Great Grandfather Kerstetter, I could not find the 1890 Census. Well, there is a good reason why I could not find that census. According to, "The Eleventh Census of the United States (1890) was destroyed/damaged by fire, at the Commerce Dept. in 1921." This one sentence began my discovery of a world of flame.

The 1890 Federal Census

The Census has always been a valuable tool for genealogists, and the 1890 Census was a unique trove of information.  This was the first U.S. census to include a form for each family, allowing for more detail to be recorded than was previously documented. Demographic information included expansions into race, home ownership, naturalization, and language. After the 1890 Census was taken, compiled, and published; it was then moved into long-term storage.

What followed was a records management disaster that can only be called an “Epic Fail”.

Nobody knows exactly how the day of January 10th, 1921 started, but it ended in a blazing inferno. The United States Department of Commerce used to have a building on the corner of 19th and Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C. Today, a modern steel and glass skyscraper sits at this location. However, back then an angular building made of less sturdy materials stood in its place. Pine wood is less expensive than denser hardwoods. It is also less dense, and therefore burns faster.  The Commerce Department stored the only copies of the 1890 census records on pine shelves in an unlocked file room in the basement of this building, just outside of a fireproof vault.

Reports conflict about what happened next. states, “According to some newspapers, it was a cigarette or lighted match that started the fire, while others believe it might have been caused by the wood shavings in the nearby carpenter shop.  Some people in Ohio thought it was a conspiracy to prevent a family from inheriting an estate because the fire destroyed every shred of evidence which could prove they were the legal heirs.”

At about 5pm, smoke was reported by the building fireman, James Foster.  Within 8 minutes, smoke poured through the rooms and hallways. The building filled with dense smoke and the building was evacuated.  The three alarm fire threatened to take the building when the fire department arrived.  Pushing through crowds of onlookers, the desperate firefighters began filling the basement before the fire could push out. Holes were cut into the concrete floor so that additional fire hoses could be inserted. It took over 25 streams of water to finally contain the flames.

         The Damage To The Commerce Building Basement Was Extensive

The fire was finally extinguished about 5 hours later. When the archivists were allowed into the basement the next morning, they were dismayed.  They found some minor damage to the 1830, 1840, 1880, 1900, and 1910 census records, as they were kept inside the fireproof vault. The 1890 Census, which had been stored outside of the vault, was decimated but not completely destroyed. About 38% of the records were undamaged and many of the affected documents could have been recovered.

Over the investigation of the next several years, the remnants of the 1890 Census were made inaccessible to most archivists and to the public at large. For large periods of time, the records sat damp and neglected in the warehouse of insurance companies. The federal government assured the public that these important one-of-a-kind documents would never be destroyed. Then in February of 1933, 4 days after voting to repeal the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, the 72nd Congress voted to have the entirety of the 1890 Census destroyed. Upon discovering this had happened, it was as if millions of genealogists cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced.

In the ensuing decades, a few boxes of documents were located with records from the 1890 Census. These were mostly fragments that appear to have been misplaced during the destruction that happened. Of more than 62 million records documented during the 1890 census, only about 6,160 have been found to still exist.


Interesting Links:



Also Check Out:

Howells, Mark. “Counting The Lost 1890 Census.”  Ancestry Magazine March/April 2000: 53-55


Consider Purchasing:

1890 Census Supplement A-M  

1890 Census Supplement N-Z

The American Census: A Social History