1950|1890: U.S. Censuses

On April 1, 2022, the National Archives will release the 1950 U.S. Census. This is a landmark event for many everyday folk, historians, genealogists, and any other “ologist” you can think of.

The laws of the land dictate that census records can only be released 72 years after the fact. So, here we are approaching the view of 1950.

On a personal note, it will be very interesting to see my parents as children on this record. Who knows who may show up as extended family living in more often than not multi-generational households. To boot, there may be answers in this census to genealogical questions that we have never thought to ask.

Here’s more information on the census in general and how to access the 1950 U.S. Census on its release:

1950 U.S. Census Population Questionnaire

From census.gov, Overview of the 1950 U.S. Census

1950 Census Release Will Offer Enhanced Digital Access, Public Collaboration Opportunity

As we approach the big reveal of 1950, which was the seventeenth census taken in the United States, and the many terabytes of digital data, along with copious amounts of historical and genealogical data, there is the woeful lament of the near-total loss of the 1890 U.S. Census that always lingers as a genealogical “what if”…

It is utterly amazing that we have the records for enumerations going back to 1790, the year of the first census, but 1890 is awash or better yet, aflamed…

You see, the 1890 U.S. Census was nearly totally destroyed by fire.

According to the United States Census Bureau:

“Most of the census’ population schedules were badly damaged by a fire in the Commerce Department Building in January 1921.”

What types of interesting information would we have been able to glean from the 1890 census?

Per the website censustools.com:

Had it survived, the 1890 census would have provided some interesting information, including answers to questions not previously asked in a census. For example, immigration was first addressed in the 1890 census, specifically whether naturalized and how many years residing in the United States. The same information is available in the 1900 census but of course memories were 10 years hazier and no doubt some of the people who immigrated prior to 1890 were dead by 1900.

1890 was also the first census which asked about Civil War service. Veterans and widows were asked to name a specific branch of service and whether Union or Confederate. That detail of information was not asked again in a federal census. Also of interest, although not very significant genealogically, was the question in 1890 which asked for a specific disease or illness for anyone not able to attend to normal business.

Turns out that wasn’t all 1890 was asking…

The 1890 U.S. Census was the sole census to ask such detailed questions (“quadroon”: 1/4 Black; “octoroon”: 1/8 Black) about African ancestry.

Please pass my feuille d’étain hat, thank you.

This article, originally published on March 29, 2018, by The History Channel states:

“Many of the changes the census has gone through have to do with race and power in America. This is particularly evident when looking at the censuses taken between 1850 and 1930, a period of rapid change that saw the end of slavery and the beginning of Jim Crow. During this time, the census sought to classify how much African ancestry a person had, thereby reinforcing a social structure that denied full citizenship to people with any amount of African heritage.

From a cynically practical perspective, the implication of the loss of the 1890 census effectively created a “suspension of ‘reality’” for an untold amount of people who had/have? one drop to consider.

While we can’t cry over spilled milk or burned records, we can try a sort of genealogical workaround to see if there is any family history information circa 1890 that can be gleaned.

Here’s some very helpful insight, once again from censustools.com:

Ancestry 1890 Census Substitute

“There are various online sources for the above genealogical data but Ancestry.com has probably the best collection of databases focusing specifically on filling the 1890 federal census gap. Ancestry’s 1890 Census Substitute is a searchable database of the 1890 federal census fragments, as well as a wide variety of city and county directories, voter registration lists, state censuses, and the 1890 Veteran’s Schedules.

Whether it’s the census records of 1890, 1950, or 2000 (which will be released in 2072 🤧) all of us who seek answers to our family history mysteries will continue to look forward to looking back.

That’s what this here genealogy bug is all about.

What an interesting situation…

The Genealogy Situation Room

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