Navigating Genealogy’s “Black Hole”

Genealogy’s “black hole” is the 1890 population census. It was mostly destroyed in a 1921 fire in Washington, DC. Only about 9,000 persons are enumerated in the fragment of this census that still exists.

Aftermath of the 1921 fire at the Commerce Building (Census.gov photo)
Aftermath of the 1921 fire at the Commerce Building (Census.gov photo)

All is not lost, however. As is the case with most types of genealogical record, there are substitutes available that can supply some or all of the information that you would have garnered from the 1890 census.

For starters, the federal government also did a special enumeration of Union Army veterans and their widows in 1890. While that census was also damaged by fire, a lot of it is still available—half of the Kentucky names, plus all the states that follow Kentucky in the alphabet. In total, nearly one million enumerations are still available from this census!

To find this special census in Ancestry Library Edition (Ancestry LE):

SEARCH—CARD CATALOG 1890 veterans

Here's another search you can do to uncover events occurring in the interval between the population censuses for 1890 and 1900:

On the landing page, select BEGIN SEARCHING.

Select SHOW MORE OPTIONS (case does not matter).

LAST NAME pearson (Exact)
PLACE YOUR ANCESTOR MIGHT HAVE LIVED Bureau County, Illinois, USA (Exact)
ANY EVENT 1895 (Exact + or – 5 years)
LOCATION Bureau County, Illinois, USA (Exact to this place)

This search returns 106 hits. Events most often noted include, birth, year of immigration, and year of marriage.

One more helpful way to navigate the 1890 “black hole” involves using the U.S City Directories, 1822-1995.  To find the directories in Ancestry Library Edition (Ancestry LE):

SEARCH—CARD CATALOG directories

LAST NAME pearson (Exact)
ANY EVENT 1895 (Exact + or – 5 years)
                      Saint Louis, Missouri, USA (Exact to this place)

This search returns 112 results. Events noted are appearances in one or more St. Louis city directories.

You can use Ancestry LE at Central Library or any of our branches.

We welcome your respectful and on-topic comments and questions in this limited public forum. To find out more, please see Appropriate Use When Posting Content. Community-contributed content represents the views of the user, not those of St. Louis Public Library