What Happened to the 1890 Census?

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!)

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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:

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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.


From American to Luxembourger: How I Changed My Citizenship

There was another school shooting yesterday. Kids died. And it happened, on a big-picture scale, because America is one giant gun culture. Weapons fetishists. As a nation, we’re obsessed with the notion of masculinity, strength, and superiority. Guns are just one way that the obsession manifests itself.

I’m really starting to hate this country. My country. The great global eighteenth century experiment that went wrong in the end. Our Founding Fathers meant well, but they put too much faith in “the people”, that we could make rational, thoughtful decisions. We can’t. Or we won’t. They also failed to envision innovation of any sort. I suppose they entrusted that future stewards would attend to growth and change, but they didn’t.

They had at least a marginal amount of faith that we could choose leaders that would actually protect the general welfare. Even with an electoral college as a backstop, we still managed to fuck that up, from our President to our Congress to our state Governors. As a nation we’re sick, our children are hungry, our wages are low, and we have fat pigs dining at gilded tables piled with kickbacks and dividends.

Maybe worst of all though, we have turned our back on science and truth. Instead building a golden age of research, art, and general enlightenment, we now have a national credo that “learning isn’t for everyone” and that education is only political indoctrination. Science is a myth, history is subjective, and patriotism is all you need.

Oh yes, patriotism. The bread and butter of the military industrial complex that has ballooned despite Eisenhower’s Kreskin-esque warning. We have a fetish for our military personnel. “Thank you for your service” is nearly a compulsory phrase, like saying “bless you” when someone sneezes, or “U-S-A!” whenever a politician speaks. Call me crazy, but I’d rather just pay more taxes and make sure they are cared for with good pay, health care, and help wherever it is needed.

It’s all fixable of course. But the laundry piled is high, and as Americans, we don’t want to fix it. We like it just how it is. In fact, we want it more, faster, bigger!

That used to terrify me. So I would rant and rail. I wrote letters and made phone calls and voted in every damn election. I contributed to worthy political campaigns and volunteered in my community. That was my twenties. Those optimistic, kickass years where a body thinks that anything can be changed and moved with a little grit, spit, and the right attitude.

And then I had a “eureka” moment some years back. I was spinning my wheels to make change where none was wanted. Why? Women of my generation have preached to their daughters and sisters that you “can’t change a man”. Well, I can’t change a nation that loves its gun culture and its anti-intellectual “every man” attitude, is frightened of every shadow, and has a feverish love of everything red, white, blue, and bible.

I am the outsider who thinks more guns equal more shootings, that it’s okay for us not to be the greatest nation in the world as long as we’re honest about it, and that we really need more space exploration, art, and education. Our churches should be gardens and our schools should be palaces. And our core philosophy as the nation with the biggest megaphone and pile of phonebooks under our feet should be “help each other”.

I am a stranger in a strange land.

When you accept that premise, your whole world becomes a little darker and pretty damn sad. There is no true utopia on earth. I get that. There is no place to hide where everyone holds hands and skips, and passes out lollipops and gumdrops. There is no chocolate waterfall or talking woodland animal to be my sidekick.

But there has to be better. Or at least less damn scary and backward. My bar isn’t that high. I swear.

Poutine Versus Trains and Cheese

There is a very poetically sad element to my thinking and wishing for better for myself, for my husband, for our daughter, and for all of the generations after her. This plucky despondency combined with grandiose hope cannot be far from how my ancestors felt when they packed up and moved to the United States–many of them barely over one hundred years ago. The sacrifices and risks they took to settle in the United States must have been unimaginable. They defied tradition and familiarity, tearing at their own roots just to replant themselves in America.

I hope they had good lives and loved their new country. But a few generations later, I wish they had stayed where they were. I want to travel back to 1917 and grab on to my great grandfather’s overcoat and dig my heels into the earth to stop him from crossing the border from Ontario to Michigan. Or at least tear the pen from his hands while he was filling out his “Permit to Leave Canada”. No! It may be cold and strange up there, but they have healthcare and gun laws. And a competent (and adorable) Prime Minister. I could eat poutine the rest of my life (until my arteries clogged solidly), and salute the maple leaf every Canada Day.

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But my grandfather was born in America. And that puts Canadian citizenship out of my reach.

That’s okay, Canada. I appreciate that Americans are a little scary, and you don’t want a mass invasion. And no offense, but your winters are just as awful as Michigan’s, and I just can’t spend  40% of the rest of my life in cold, snowy darkness. So dark. So bleak.

So where is a stranger to go? For a long time, the real prize, the dream escape, has been somewhere in western Europe. The culture, the pace, the food, the politics, the mass transit. It all suits me so well. It’s no utopia, but it feels like home calling to me, especially while I sit on my couch staring out at the gray sky sprinkling snow on the roadways and treetops. I dream of sipping coffee or wine in cafes, walking a few blocks to get fresh baguettes and vegetables from local stands, and popping into museums on the weekend. Or I could take an easy train ride to a new country I’ve never seen before. I can ride the underground to work or a shopping destination, without fighting traffic, bumping around on massive potholes, and going to a warehouse grocery store to get vegetables that have been in transit and storage for at least several weeks. No more flat tires, oil changes, ludicrously high insurance, or even the monthly lease payments. It’s all train tracks, a good book, and my glowing phone. And castles, cheese, and museums. And fresh flowers, warmth, and bicycling. It’s such a pretty picture in my head. So pretty, that early on, I became determined to make that the retirement plan. Sell off everything I own–which isn’t a fortune–and rent a flat in Paris.

But I’m still in my thirties, and that means I have a lot of slushy winters to survive before then. A lot of school shooting coverage to watch. A lot of misspelled “God Bles Trump” and “Vetrans For Trump” road signs to drive past, while I bump over potholes and squirt my windshield free of road salt spittle.

So I crafted a new, more aggressive plan: Get a job! Of course. We can make the move right now, if only there is a wage waiting for us. And a work visa. That’s the catch, though. An employer has to want you so badly that they’ll sponsor a very expensive visa in your name. I could keep rolling the dice all day long, every day, and the right job is probably never going to pop up to pluck us all out of Michigan. My husband and I are great at our professional jobs, but so are a lot of other people. And visas are expensive.

The futility of it seemed bleak. Watching-hillbilly-asscracks-at-Wal-Mart kind of bleak.

And then, one Sunday a few years back, chance changed this stranger’s life.


Get to Know Andrew Jackson

“His wife died. They destroyed his wife and she died. He was a swashbuckler, but when his wife died you know he visited her grave everyday? I visited her grave actually because I was in Tennessee…And it was amazing. The people of Tennessee are amazing people. They love Andrew Jackson. They love Andrew Jackson in Tennessee…I mean had Andrew Jackson been a little later you wouldn’t have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart. He was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War, he said ‘There’s no reason for this.'”

Donald Trump really idolizes Andrew Jackson. His portrait hangs in the Oval Office, and the POTUS has verbal diarrhea, apparently, just at the mention of our seventh president. So maybe we should get to know him and understand what Donald Trump really sees in the “people’s president”.

Solider Boy

Jackson grew up dirt-poor and poorly educated in the Carolinas, and was a tween during the American Revolution. Inspired by his older brother’s grizzly death, his mother made him join the local militia at the age of 13. He was almost immediately captured, and was held as a prisoner of war. Though his military incarceration was quite brief, he nearly died of small pox. Shortly afterward, he lost his remaining brother and mother to disease, for which he always blamed the British. This Anglo grudge led him to a life of military service and a deep, festering sense of vengeance.

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Donald Trump Comparison!:
A young, wealthy, athletic Trump graduated college and avoided compulsory military service in the Vietnam War because of a dubious diagnosis of having “bone spurs”. Consequently, he has never served in the military. And he once had this to say: “I like people who weren’t captured.”

Lawyer, Slave Owner, Cotton Mogul, and Stain on the Soul of Humanity

As an orphan, Jackson was still really poorly educated until he fled his hometown to study law informally in modern-day Tennessee. And it turns out Tennessee, as-was, had a boatload of hookers and gambling opportunities. So that was great for him.

He passed the bar and had friends pull a few strings to get him a gig as a government prosecutor. At age 21 he bought his first slave, which was probably his way of feeling really awesome about himself. By age 39 he was even wealthy enough to buy his own cotton plantation, the Hermitage, with nine slaves working the fields. Of course, this number went up quite a bit under Jackson’s management. Eventually, hundreds of slaves would be incarcerated at the Hermitage. Some historians think he was a relatively “kind” slave owner because he “let” the slaves bear babies and only whipped them when they really deserved it. But hell naw, the man ran a cotton plantation his entire life.

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Game of Thrones: How it Parallels the Wars of the Roses

I’ve been a bit obsessed by the The Wars of the Roses lately. Maybe that’s hard for some people to understand, but I look at it like a really, really old season of Scandal, just with much worse hygiene. But apparently I’m not alone in my fascination, because author George RR Martin has made no secret that his A Song of Ice and Fire series (aka Game of Thrones) is based loosely on The Wars of the Roses. Cool. GRRM gets it.

Now, while the books/TV show that you and I know by heart is no allegory for the multi-decade conflict, there are a whole lot of parallels we can draw. So here is where I tear into the major characters like I am Henry VIII clawing apart a whole roasted chicken (I know, I know, the Tudors come later, but seriously, that man could really eat!).

The Lancasters Always Pay Their Debts

First, you need to understand that the (over-simplistic and somewhat misleading) gist of real-life The Wars of the Roses is that it’s a tale of two families battling for the English throne.

First, the Lancasters ruled. Then the Yorks.

And back and forth, and a bit wiggly all around for a while. Complicated. Now, notice the similarities in the names. Familiar, eh?

Lancaster = Lannister
York = Stark

Lancaster’s (alleged) red rose sigil = Lannister’s red lion sigil

York’s (alleged) white rose sigil = Stark’s white dire wolf sigil

You see? Even linguistically and symbolically, it’s pretty obvious where GRRM started. Even the map of Westeros loosely resembles the UK.

In fact, the only place where the allegory really falls apart is how kindly the Starks are portrayed by GRRM. The real-life Yorks were mostly some really greedy assholes. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Oh, and if you want to learn more about the Wars of the Roses in a fun and delightful way, I retell the history here. Ya know, jut in case you want more background.

Okay, let’s just jump in and look at how I see the characters lining up:

Richard II = Mad King Aerys (Aerys II)

Richard II and Aerys

Richard II

King Richard II is largely considered the first major victim of The Wars of the Roses (TWOTR). See, Richard II had ruled the kingdom since he was only ten years old, and by most accounts, he had grown up to be a right little shit. His egocentric hobbies included building monuments to himself and surrounding himself with sycophants. After his wife, Anne of Bohemia, died, Richard started to become outwardly paranoid and began executing and banishing most of his rivals. This didn’t go over so well with his (recently banished) cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, who raised an army against him, and threw him in prison, where he shortly thereafter died–possibly murdered, possibly starved to death, accounts differ.

Mad King Aerys II

Aerys II also ascended to the throne via largely non-disputed lineage. Good for him. But that didn’t help him much after his paranoia and general insanity caused him to start offing rivals, oh yeah, and playing with fire. As with Richard II, those who had once been close to him started throwing shade his way, distrusting the king’s actions and motives. Eventually Aerys II was overthrown in Robert’s Rebellion. Of course, Aerys’s death was much swifter…and pointier. No prison for him.

There are, of course, many differences between the characters. Aerys’s affinity for kidnapping and pyrotechnics sets him apart from his historical doppelgänger. But ultimately, both lost the throne that rightfully belonged to them because they lost their grip on reality. And when that happens, there is always someone waiting in the wings to pluck the crown of the king’s head.

King Henry IV = Robert Baratheon


The Wars of the Roses in Pictures

A Totally True, Completely Authentic Retelling of History
(To be Enjoyed With a Butt of Malmsey Wine)

For nearly one hundred years in England’s history, a knot of noble families fought over the royal throne in a giant, messy multi-generational screw-you fest that history has dubbed “The Wars of the Roses”.

This title is a misnomer, of course. The murder, deception, and power mongering went far beyond any battlefield. So not simply a war.

And furthermore, though history tries to explain this era as being a battle between two families–each represented by a rose–that ignores a lot of historical context, and a whole lot of players from other families and other countries. So not really strictly about roses either.

Maybe they should have called it The Great English Stink instead. Eh, guess no poets were on hand to think of it. Shakespeare really dropped the ball on this one, eh?

“You will smell the white rose! Smell it! Smellllll it!”

Anyway, it’s a rotten, stinkin’ historical mess that took forever to play out and is really damn confusing. So to understand this giant historical knot, you really need a proper illustrated guide. Right? And it ought to be irreverently blunt. Right? Yes, yes. Good, good. I think so, too.