Genealogy nerds like me frequently weep and fan themselves to exhaustion over a gaping hole in America’s historical record:
The 1890 U.S. Census is gone.
The original was destroyed. No copies exist.
It has been erased from history, erased from existence.
That, my friends, is no small deal. Every ten years since 1790, we have records of who lived where, with what family members, how old they were…and assorted other nuggets of personal history. Try to research your family history, and you will quickly understand what a treasure chest each census is–“oh look, my great-great grandfather was a ‘gentleman’ by profession in 1910, while in 1900, he was a fruit peddler.” I can tell you when my great grandparents took in my young, distant cousins (after their mother’s dress caught on fire from the stove, and her instincts to run across a field to a neighboring home while aflame were fatal). I can point to the empty, weed-filled lot in Detroit and say with confidence, “Yep, that was my family’s home for over fifty years.”
I know all of this because of census records. But thanks to a deep and bizarre mystery, I cannot track much of my American ancestors’ history and movement from 1881 to 1899, because the 1890 census has been wiped from history.
What happened to it? According to most stories it burned up in 1921. But that isn’t really the truth. Something far stranger happened, and to this day it isn’t clear at all why it happened.
This is the story of the 1890 U.S. Census and how it went from controversial marvel, to disappearing pile of ash. What you are about to read is a tale of greed, incompetence, and mystery.
1890: The Eleventh Census is Taken
It is June, 1890. Across the country, about 86,000 men had recently been hired for temporary work as census enumerators. Now, in the June heat, each man plods door to door within his assigned district to take down a wide range of personal and confidential family details about births, residences, parents, occupations, race, ethnicity, education, and impairments. For the first time (and what would later turn out to be the only time for many decades to come), there is a separate schedule (sheet of paper) for each family, allowing for unprecedented details to be recorded–and making it a back-breaking job to shuffle all of that paper. (It is said that there is more paper used in this census taking than in all previous ten censuses combined!)
When a family cannot be questioned personally, it is within the power of each enumerator to obtain the needed information from neighbors as proxies. It is important to be efficient in the collection, as the job must be done and reported back to Washington by the July deadline.
The untrained enumerators have sworn an oath to be courteous, confidential, and thorough–the last part being nearly guaranteed, as the men are paid according to what each records. According to the 1890 “Instructions to Enumerators” guide, they are each to be compensated to the tune of 2 cents per death reported, 5 cents per person with a mental or physical defect, or for each prisoner, pauper or homeless child. Each also receives 5 cents for each veteran or veteran’s widow from the “war of the rebellion”, and 2 cents for every other living person.
The data collection is likely grueling, tedious work without long-term prospects, but it is in service of their country and history–or, in some cases, it is a wonderful gesture of patronage by powerful friends and muggity-wumps who want well-placed (and untested) enumerators to advance their political or business agendas. Many deals across the nation hinge on the outcome of this census and what it reveals about changing populations, movements, and resources. In short, a lot of money may be made or lost over the results.
Once the work is complete, each man wraps up his work by following these guidelines as described in the August 30, 1890 issue of Scientific American:
This is a deviation from the practice of enumerators in past decades, who had previously filed their completed census schedules with County Clerks offices before they were forwarded to Washington. But this year, there is so much data (*sigh*) that the hand-copying burden is an easy excuse for the census records to bypass local offices and head straight to Washington, and only Washington. All eggs in one flammable basket.