Working with the U. S. Federal censuses from 1790 to 1930 are wonderful sources for learning about one’s ancestors. You are fortunate if you can locate and follow an ancestor over decades. It provides real insight of occupations, family members, where they lived, if they served in the military or owned property.
The U. S. Federal census was done every ten years at the beginning of a new decade. A few individual states did their own state census during the in-between years, like 1885 and 1895.
On June 1, 1890, marked the official census date for that decade and all responses across the country reflected the status of the household on that date. This was especially important since it had been some 25 years since the end of the American Civil War and many had started receiving military pensions. This 1890 census had a question relating to those who had serviced in the military during the Civil War.
The 1890 census also prepared a separate schedule for each family. The schedule contained information relating to race (white, black, mulatto, quadroon, octoroon, Chinese, Japanese, or Indian), if the head of household owned the home, if each person had the ability to speak English, when they immigrated, and the date of naturalization. Married women were asked for the number of children born and the number living at the time of the census. Some of these same questions would be asked again in the 1900 and 1910 census. For those who moved out of the country or died, the 1890 census would be their only record to such questions.
There was a special schedule of questions also in 1890. It included questions about mortality, crime, pauperism and benevolence and with a special listing of classes (those who were deaf, dumb, blind, insane). Those special schedules and responses were badly damaged by fire in March 1896 and destroyed by Department of the Interior.
By the early 20th century there was a need for a new archive building where all census schedules could be safely stored. In 1921, the censuses were still stored on pine shelves in an unlocked file room in the basement of the Commerce Building in Washington, D. C.
On January 10, 1921 in the late afternoon, fire and intense smoke was coming from the Commerce Building. The arriving firemen finally gained access to the basement. While a crowd of ten thousand people watched, the firemen poured water into the building and flooded the cellar through holes cut into the concrete floor. The fire did not go above the basement. By 9:45 p.m. the fire was extinguished, but firemen poured water into the burned area past 10:30 p.m. With the blaze extinguished, despite the obvious damage and need for immediate salvage efforts, the chief clerk opened windows to let out the smoke with only a couple watchmen on patrol for the rest of the night.
The next morning the damage was examined. There was ankle-deep water. The 1890 census was stacked outside the main vault and received the most water from the firemen. After first evaluating the damage, it was believed about 25 percent of the 1890 census was destroyed, with 50 percent of the remainder damaged by water, smoke, and fire. The investigators tried to come up with a reason why the fire started, no cause was ever determined.
In May of 1921, the 1890 destroyed census records were still piled in a large warehouse. They were eventually transferred back to the census building, bound where possible and put in some order for reference. They sat there for years and were finally ordered to be destroyed by Department of Commerce in 1934. It would not be until November 1935 that the National Archives fire-safe building was opened. Too late for the 1890 census, where fewer than 6,160 names could be indexed on the surviving 1890 population schedules. A most important link to our ancestors was lost forever. Between the 1880 and 1900 censuses was twenty years. Many changes and events were now unrecorded, which made other sources such as city directories, tax rolls, and states censuses even more precious.