Some people think the 1890 US Federal Census perished by fire. In truth, part did. Others think it perished by water. That also is true for a portion. The cold truth is a large portion perished by ice—the cold nature of government bureaucracies and the frozen vacuum that existed prior to the establishment of an agency charged with preserving the nation's historical documents.
In the lead paragraph of a set of 1996 articles in NARA's Prologue magazine, Kellee Blake noted,
Reference sources routinely dismiss the 1890 census records as "destroyed by fire" in 1921. Examination of the records of the Bureau of Census and other federal agencies, however, reveals a far more complex tale. This is a genuine tragedy of records--played out before Congress fully established a National Archives--and eternally anguishing to researchers.
Blake described the icy depth of the tragic loss in these words:
Of the decennial population census schedules, perhaps none might have been more critical to studies of immigration, industrialization, westward migration, and characteristics of the general population than the Eleventh Census of the United States, taken in June 1890.
If you don't want me to spoil the mystery before you read the articles, stop reading now.
If you want the short summary, continue reading.
Timeline of the 1890 Census Destruction
- June 1890 - Eleventh Census of the United States administers the Department of the Interior. Unlike earlier censuses, originals are not kept at the local level.
- 1 July 1890 - Enumeration was generally complete by this date. Widespread accusations of fraud arise.
- March 1896 - Fire destroys the schedules for mortality, crime, pauperism and benevolence, special classes and portions of the transportation and insurance schedules.
- 1902 - Establishment of the US Census Bureau.
- 1903 - A census clerk reports the population schedules are in "fairly good condition." In subsequent years repeated requests for an archives building for their safe storage receive a cool reception.
- 10 January 1921 - The 1890 census is neatly stacked in the basement of the Commerce Building. At about 5 pm fireman James Foster noticed smoke and called the fire department. With twenty streams of water pouring into the building, the fire was out of 9:45 pm, although fighters continuing to pour water into hot spots past 10:30 pm.
- 11 January 1921 - While the basement vault was fireproof and (supposedly) watertight, the 1890 census was stacked outside the vault. About 25 percent were completely destroyed by the fire, but only half the remaining forms had fire, smoke and water damage. That means about 38% were undamaged!
- 15 January 1921 - Archivists denied further access during insurance companies' examinations. Experts were ultimately unable to determine the cause of the fire. The damaged records were transferred to a temporary warehouse.
- Subsequent months - Organizations lobbied against the destruction of the census and were assured no destruction was planned.
- May 1921 - The records were transferred back to the census building.
- December 1932 - The Chief Clerk of the Bureau of Census sent to the Librarian of Congress a list of items up for destruction if not of historical interest. Item 22 was the 1890 census. The Library of Congress did not indicate any items should be retained.
- 21 February 1933 - Congress authorized destruction.
- 1934 - According to one note at the Census Bureau, "remaining schedules destroyed by Department of Commerce in 1934 (not approved by the Geographer)."
- 1935 - According to another report, the final destruction of the population schedules of the 1890 U.S. Federal Census did not occur until 1935.
Fire destroyed 25% of the 1890 Census. Somehow, government ineptitude destroyed the rest, the undamaged 38% and the water damaged 37% that modern technology might have been able to recover. It was a fitting irony that one arm of the government laid the cornerstone for the National Archives Building on February 20th, 1933 and the following day another arm of the government authorized the destruction of the 1890 census.
Fitting, but fatal.