Posted by Crista Cowan on March 13, 2012 in Collections, Research, Site Features

For those of you who are new to genealogy, you may be wondering why you haven’t received any hints leading you to 1890 census records for the people in your family tree.  Here’s the story.  The 1890 U.S. Federal Census was stored in the Commerce Building in Washington D.C.  In 1921 there was a fire in the basement of that building.  About 1/4 of the census was destroyed by fire.  Another 50% of it was ruined by smoke and water damage.  In the mid-1930s the remainder of the census was destroyed by government order.

1890 U.S. Population Density

For those of us who use census records as the beginning steps for sketching out the structure of our families, that gap between 1880 and 1900 seems huge and, sometimes, insurmountable.  A lot can happen in twenty years.

There are plenty of other records available that can help you trace your family through the end of the 19th century.  Here are a few of my favorite.


State Census Records

Many states took censuses on “off” years from the federal government, most commonly on the “fives.”  Using the Card Catalog, do a title search for “State Census” and see what comes up.  To solve the 1880-1900 gap challenge, look specifically for censuses taken in 1885 or 1895.  As of now we have the following censuses for that time period online at

  • Colorado (1885)
  • Florida (1885)
  • Iowa (1885, 1895)
  • Kansas (1885, 1895)
  • Michigan (1884, 1894)
  • Minnesota (1885, 1895)
  • Nebraska (1885)
  • New Jersey (1895)
  • New York (1892)
  • South Dakota (1895)


City Directories

While these will likely only list the adults in the household (and sometimes only the head of household), city directories are a great resource for tracking your family through the 1880s and 90s.  Using the Card Catalog, filter to directories, then state, then decade to see what is available.  Once you find a person you are looking for, try a surname search on the same street to see who else shows up in the same neighborhood or place of employment.



Newspapers are another great way to track your family, especially if they came from a smaller community where local happenings were big news.  Be sure to check out the large newspaper collection on – again, using the Card Catalog, filter to Newspapers, then state, then decade to see what shows up in the same time and place as your family.


If you want a quick video tutorial about searching the state censuses and the city directories, watch my Ancestry LIVE broadcast from earlier today.

Until next time – Have fun climbing your family tree…

Crista Cowan

Crista has been doing genealogy since she was a child. She has been employed at since 2004. Around here she's known as The Barefoot Genealogist. Google Twitter


  1. Crista Cowan

    Good catch, John. I’ll get the database title fixed so it matches the others – “Census” not “Censuses” – and then it will surface in the Card Catalog search with the rest. I’ve also fixed my list above.

  2. Kathleen

    Does anyone know why the government destroyed the rest???? SHAMEFUL!! Thank You for the information.
    I didn’t know this!! Bless You All for your hard work. Grateful to you and the Ancestry and Informational Team/s.

  3. Don

    The Michigan ones won’t help you much either – the 1884 census looks to be the summary data (fascinating if you want to know how many acres of farmland are in each county, but are not interested in the names of any people) and 1894 only has 10 counties even though there are many more surviving.

  4. Burgess

    My apologies for this off-the-topic post. Since you mentioned “I’ll get the database title fixed,” I’ve noticed other titles that appears to be inaccurate.

    I’ve reported to general help, with no correction. Is there a better route to take?

    An example – a marriage which took place in Georgia and was reported in “Southern Christian Advocate,” a mostly-Methodist newspaper, is listed as a marriage taking place in South Carolina. If I had to guess, someone presumed “SCA” indicated South Carolina.


  5. Another great alternative for Manhattan (New York City) is the 1890 New York City Police Census, which is available at the New York Public Library on microfilm (complete set of surviving records). has a few records online.

    The records on microfilm are not indexed by name. You have to start by finding an address in a city directory and then converting the address to a “book” number. The microfilm is arranged by book number. For more information, contact the Milstein Division of U.S. History, Local History & Genealogy, NYPL at

  6. I also am one of those whom had relatives that
    lived in Washington, DC, in 1880, 1890, 1900, and some even later. I was able to find my maternal
    greatgrandfather, in 1880 with family members. Then
    nothing on him, or rest of his family until 1900. That’s when I found the newspaper online for DC. So
    I started a search, and found that he had passed
    away in 1900. I knew this was him, because my Great Aunts husband was listed as being in charge of his funeral. Never have found where my maternal greatmother, went. Where else can I look??? I did know about the 1890 Census. Louise Gaskins

  7. Warren Roberts

    I’ve been trying to find out more about my gggrandfather and his death in the civil war. I see a file # M226, and roll # 63. What are they and how can I access them. Thanks for any help you can give me. Warren Roberts

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