The U.S. Census is a good starting point for genealogy research, but the missing 1890 Census can be a stumbling block. There are still ways to find information for that decade.

The first U.S. Census was taken in 1790 and was focused on counting population. It was limited to name of the head of household, number of free White males under 16 years of age, those 16 and older, number of White females, number of other free persons, and number of slaves at each homestead.

On Jan. 10, 1921, all but a few portions of the 1890 Census was destroyed by fire, smoke and water damage in Washington, D.C.’s Commerce Department, of which the Census Bureau is a part. During 1942 and 1952 office moves, a few records were found. But of the 62,979,766 people, records for only 6,160 survived.

Fragments of records exist for certain counties in a few states. They are Perry County, Alabama; Muscogee County, Georgia; McDonough County, Illinois; Wright County, Minnesota; Hudson County, New Jersey; Suffolk and Westchester Counties, New York; Cleveland and Gaston Counties, North Carolina; Clinton and Hamilton Counties, Ohio; Union County, South Dakota; and Ellis, Hood, Kaufman, Rusk, and Trinity Counties in Texas.

If 1890 Census records do not exist for the person you are researching, you can look at previous and later census to guide you. The 1890 Census included many of the same questions as the 1880 enumeration.

City Directories: After the Civil War, most cities of moderate size published directories.They often listed entire families, address, with occupation of the head of household.

If an ancestor fought for the Union in the Civil War and was living in 1890, he will be listed in the 1890 Veteran’s Census.

Those records were not destroyed, as it was stored in a different location. The record shows the veteran’s age, occupation, and where he resided at the time the census was taken.

State census: Not every state collected a census but the ones that did were usually taken between the regular census, generally with dates ending in 5. Exceptions exist. New York began taking census in 1855 — but not all end in 5, such as 1891 and 1901.

An index that shows questions for each census decade is available at

As always in research, remember that the census was taken by human beings. Information may be incorrect because of a census taker’s poor handwriting, physical limitations, education, time, attention to detail, and disinterest.

The informant at the address may have had physical limitations (hearing, speech, etc), is a child, or a person who lacked knowledge of household members. Also, the resident may have been secretive with information.

When information is transcribed, the transcriber may make mistakes. If possible, always check the original copy. When you take a closer look at the original, you will see how handwriting can change your ancestor from Ann to Dan. Use a census as a vehicle in research, not the absolute.

Becky McCreary is newsletter editor for the Green Valley Genealogical Society. Contact her at or visit the society’s website at, where her columns are archived. The articles may not be reprinted without written permission of the author.

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