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Not a total loss

All that burns is not lost.


Even when it comes to that dratted fire in 1921 that cost us the bulk of the 1890 U.S. census schedules.

1890 censusSo yesterday The Legal Genealogist used the 1908 fire in Chelsea, Massachusetts, to make the point that we need to be on the alert, all the time, in our research to the need to do more research — to go behind things like the census records to the stories.1

In that case the story of the fire was hidden behind the population figures of the City of Chelsea between 1820 and 1910 — figures that showed consistent and often astronomical growth in every decade except the last. And it was the drop between 1900 and 1910 that should alert us to the need to find out why.2

The chart that was used to tell the tale of those figures, however, included Chelsea’s population in 1890, prompting reader Charlie Morgan to ask: “where did you get the 1890 census information? Is that part of the census that survived the fire that destroyed most of that census?”

Great question.

Because the answer is: All that burns is not lost.

Now let’s back up a little to make sure everybody’s on the same page.

There were actually two fires that affected the 1890 census. The first one was in 1896, when many of the special schedules — for mortality and the like — were damaged and then (sigh) destroyed by order of the Interior Department.3

It was the second one, in 1921, that was so devastating. That’s when the fire in the basement of the Commerce Building did the real damage. The 1890 census was outside of the fireproof basement vault and it was badly impacted:

The morning after was an archivist’s nightmare… Census Director Sam Rogers reported the extensive damage to the 1890 schedules, estimating 25 percent destroyed, with 50 percent of the remainder damaged by water, smoke, and fire. Salvage of the watersoaked and charred documents might be possible, reported the bureau, but saving even a small part would take a month, and it would take two to three years to copy off and save all the records damaged in the fire. The preliminary assessment of Census Bureau Clerk T. J. Fitzgerald was far more sobering. Fitzgerald told reporters that the priceless 1890 records were “certain to be absolutely ruined. There is no method of restoring the legibility of a water-soaked volume.”4

That’s bad enough.

What followed was worse.

No real efforts to save the 1890 original schedules were ever undertaken. In 1932, the Census Bureau asked Congress for authority to destroy them all, Congress gave the okay and… sigh… that was that.5

Ouch, ouch, ouch.

Except that that wasn’t that, not entirely.

First off, it turned out that not all of the original population schedules had been destroyed. Over the years, fragments from Illinois, Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, South Dakota, Texas, and the District of Columbia have been discovered and microfilmed as National Archives Microfilm Publication M407.6 You can find those online for free at FamilySearch.

Second, a whole bunch of the special schedules for Union veterans and widows of Union veterans from 1890 weren’t destroyed in either fire. Most of the schedules for states alphabetically from Alabama through Kansas were lost, but there are some in existence for California (Alcatraz), Connecticut (Fort Trumbull, Hartford County Hospital, and U.S. Naval Station), Delaware (Delaware State Hospital for the Insane), Florida (Fort Barrancas and St. Francis Barracks), Idaho (Boise Barracks and Fort Sherman), Illinois (Cook County and Henderson County), Indiana (Warrick County and White County), and Kansas (Barton County). About half of Kentucky is missing, but the rest of the states alphabetically through Wyoming survived. All of those were microfilmed as National Archives Microfilm Publication M123.7 That’s available free on FamilySearch and by subscription on Ancestry.

And that’s not all.

Because long before either fire there were many statistical reports prepared from the data that had been collected in 1890. Those reports, in a collection called the Census of Population and Housing, are on the website of the U.S. Census Bureau.8 There are tons of goodies to be found in those reports — and not just for 1890.

Looking at that one year, “the results of the 1890 Census are contained in 25 volumes, plus a three-part compendium, statistical atlas, and an abstract.”9 The final reports, in 15 volumes, include:

• Volume 1: Report on Population of the United States at the Eleventh Census

• Volume 2: Report on the Insane, Feeble-minded, Deaf and Dumb, and Blind in the United States.

• Volume 3: Report on Crime, Pauperism, and Benevolence in the United States

• Volume 4: Report on Vital and Social Statistics in the United States

• Volume 5: Reports on the statistics of agriculture in the United States, agriculture by irrigation in the western part of the United States, and statistics of fisheries in the United States.

• Volume 6: Report on Manufacturing Industries in the United States

• Volume 7: Report on Mineral Industries in the United States

• Volume 8: Report on the Population and Resources of Alaska

• Volume 9: Report on Statistics of Churches in the United States in the United States (pages 713 and 795-812 missing)

• Volume 10: Report on Indians Taxed and Indians Not Taxed in the United States (except Alaska).

• Volume 11: Report on Insurance Business in the United States

• Volume 12: Report on Real Estate Mortgages in the United States

• Volume 13: Report on Farms and Homes: Proprietorship and Indebtedness in the United States

• Volume 14: Report on Transportation Business in the United States

• Volume 15: Report on Wealth, Debt, and Taxation

And there’s more: the abstract of the census, a report on education, another on social statistics and more, plus a whole series of 380 bulletins issued between 1889 and 1894.

No, it’s not as good as having an every-name population schedule for 1890.

But it’s a whole lot better than having nothing for 1890 — and it does give us things like, just as one example, the population of Chelsea, Massachusetts, in that year.

So… really… before you despair, check out what does survive from 1890.

All that burns is not lost.


  1. Judy G. Russell, “Behind the numbers,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 12 Apr 1908 ( : accessed 13 Apr 1908).
  2. Ibid.
  3. Kellee Blake, “‘First in the Path of the Firemen’: The Fate of the 1890 Population Census,” Prologue, Spring 1996, online, National Archives ( : accessed 13 Apr 2018).
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid., Part 2.
  8. Census of Population and Housing, U.S. Census Bureau (
  9. Ibid., “Census of Population and Housing, 1890: Information about the 1890 Census.”
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