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The Lost Census of The Gilded Age

Genealogists and family historians mourn the loss of the 1890 Census in a 1921 fire to this day. Some fragments and substitutes remain for researching, but lets look at what was in that lost Census and what was going on in 1890, shall we?

This was the very first census that used an "automated tabulating machine" with punch cards invented by Herman Hollerith in 1884 which reduced the processing of the data to six years down from the eight that were necessary for the 1880 count. Hollerith's company eventually became IBM.
Replica of the Hollerith Tabulating Machine at the Computer History Museum

The US population, according to the Census Bureau, was 62,979,766 people. This was increase in population of 25.5% since 1880 and the headcount shows this equaled 17.8 people per square mile. The 2020 Census counts 93.8 people per square mile! The geographic center of the US in 1890 is 20 miles east of Columbus, Indiana.

There were 42 US states on enumeration day of June 1. Wyoming and Idaho are admitted as the 43rd and 44th states in July. The Census Bureau announced that they would no longer track westward migration because, "Up to and including 1880 the country had a frontier of settlement, but at present the unsettled area has been so broken into by isolated bodies of settlement that there can hardly be said to be a frontier line."

Chief Sitting Bull of the Teton Lakota

The Native population recorded in the 1890 census reached an all time low of 237,196 - a decrease of 95% from the estimated population in 1491. On December 15, 1890 Sitting Bull of the Teton Lakota died at the age of 50 in South Dakota while being arrested. Two weeks later, the Wounded Knee Massacre occurred when the US Cavalry killed hundreds of unarmed men, women and children. The Native American resistance to white rule in the West was essentially over. I'll put a link at the bottom of the post so you can read more about Sitting Bull and his place in the history of the West (including Custer and Little Big Horn).

Between 1880 and 1890 almost 40 per cent of the "townships" in the rural US lost population due to what The Library of Congress cites as the industrialization of the country. The large cities grew by about 15 million people in the two decades before 1900, including increasing immigration from Europe where the economy and threats of war were driving people away from their homes.

"The American Experience" from www.PBS.Org had this to say about "The Gilded Age" that began in 1890, "While the rich wore diamonds, many wore rags. In 1890, 11 million of the nation's 12 million families earned less than $1200 per year; of this group, the average annual income was $380, well below the poverty line. Rural Americans and new immigrants crowded into urban areas. Tenements spread across city landscapes, teeming with crime and filth. Americans had sewing machines, phonographs, skyscrapers, and even electric lights, yet most people labored in the shadow of poverty."

1890 Photo of Yosemite Valley
1890 Photo of Yosemite Valley, showing the North Dome and the Washington Tower

Luckily, the need to conserve the natural beauty of the country were recognized much earlier and two more National Parks were created in 1890 out of reserved lands, both in California. Yosemite Valley and Sequoia National Parks joined Yellowstone which was created in 1872.

Where was your family on June 1, 1890? Were they already here in the US? Were they still on the farm? Where were their kids, still there with them, or off to the factories?

It's a shame we don't have the 1890 Census to have a clearer image of where our ancestors were and exactly how they were living. There are, of course, several substitutes for researching 1890. Ancestry has an entire data base of substitutes including the saved fragments and the Widows and Orphans Census. Cyndi's List has dozens of listings, some free, some not (including several sections of Ancestry) and is always a good place to start.

I wish you ongoing success with your research! If you'd like another set of eyes to look at your brick walls, just shoot me an email. Free peeks and free quotes are always available.

Thanks for sharing your time again this week!


Leslie Ryan

No compensation is received for any referrals or links herein. No copyright infringement is intended.

Further reading about Sitting Bull and the Lakota

More about the 1890 Census and Censuses in General"


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