Bridging the 1890 Census Gap

It’s there staring you in the face as you look over the records you’ve collected for your ancestor; it’s a gap in your research that’s taunting you. Yes, it’s the dreaded 1890 census gap. U.S. Censuses from 1900 to 1930 are full of rich details that really help us flesh out our family trees. But as we move back beyond the turn of the century, we need to become a little more resourceful when it comes to that twenty-year span between the 1880 and the 1900 censuses.
The 1890 U.S. federal census was mostly destroyed by a fire at the Commerce Department in Washington, D.C. on 10 January 1921. The surviving 1,233 pages or pieces, document only 6,160 of the 62,979,766 people enumerated that year, from fragments of Alabama, the District of Columbia, Georgia, Illinois, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, South Dakota, and Texas.

Those who have hit the genealogical lotto and descend from those 6,160 people will find a full page of questions for each household, with details similar to what we find on 20th century enumerations.  The rest of us have to get a little more creative.

The 1890 Census Substitute
In March of 2000, launched the 1890 Census Substitute, a collection of city directories and other records that has helped fill that void left by the lost 1890 census. A list of the many collections included in the substitute can be found below the search box on that page, and all of them are searchable from that page.

But sometimes we can be more effective with our searching by getting a little closer to the records and searching collections individually. To do that, it’s helpful to have a general idea of where your ancestor was around 1890. Create a timeline using dates and places you can glean from other records. For example, the estimated dates and birth places of parents, children or siblings found in later enumerations can help in some cases to establish where they were at that time. Here are some collections that you might want to search directly.

City Directories
Once you have a state to focus on, browse the list at the bottom of the Census Substitute page for collections of interest. City directories are helpful in placing your ancestor in a particular place in a particular year. Don’t overlook the database of U.S. City Directories, as this collection may include even more titles. To see what’s available, select the state and city or county of interest and then open the drop-down box to view the years that are available. Once you determine what years are included, you can use that information to narrow your search in the main search form.  Since city directories are alphabetical, you can also click through to the images of the directory of interest and then browse it using the image numbers and page forward arrows. Beyond the names and addresses, you may also find interesting details about the place where your ancestor lived.

State Censuses
State censuses, where available, can also help fill the void left by the missing 1890 Census. Typically taken between the decennial federal censuses, state censuses vary in availability and in the information included. A good place to explore what censuses were available for your state is the Wiki. One of the core pieces of the wiki is Red Book: American State, County & Town Sources¸ and from the main page of that title  you can navigate through the links at the bottom of the page to each state’s chapter, and from there to the section that discusses the availability of census records for that state. There are links to state census records that are available on and beyond on these pages. A list of state censuses on also can be found here .

1890 Veterans Schedules
Although the 1890 population schedules were mostly destroyed, fortunately nearly 75,000 special schedules from that census with the names of Union veterans and widows survived. 1890 Veterans’ Schedules are available alphabetically beginning with part of Kentucky through Wyoming, Lincoln Post #3 in Washington, D.C., and selected U.S. vessels and navy yards. For those whose ancestors appear in the surviving records, they’re a unique look at the veterans and widows of the Civil War.
On the schedules you’ll find the name of the veteran or his widow, rank, company, regiment or vessel, dates of enlistment and discharge, and length of service. On the lower half of the schedule, it also lists the address, any disabilities incurred (and sometimes where), and remarks. You can learn more about these unique records here.

Card Catalog
To see what other types of records are available for the 1890s, the Card Catalog is another way to get a feel for the resources at hand. Use the filters to sort by location, and then select 1890s from the time frame. Then just click the x next to 1890s and select 1880s to see collections that include the previous decade. Below is the results for Cook County, Illinois, which include Chicago Voter Registrations for 1890 and 1892. Card Catalog

By changing the decade to 1880s, you’d find the voter registrations from 1888 as well. These records include the name and residence of Chicago voters as well as their nativity, color, term of residence in the precinct, county and state, whether naturalized and the year and court of naturalization, and whether they had voted.

Chicago Voter Registration, page 1 

Chicago Voter Registration, page 2

Search the 1890 Census Substitute 

Other articles in the 23 January 2011 Weekly Discovery: 

Four Ways to Make Work for You

Family History Tip: Stories in Old Deeds 

Photo Corner