Will Census Fiasco Stop My Ancestor Search?

National Archives and Records Administration
National Archives and Records Administration

(The Root) — Sometimes, when one is researching one's family tree, the paper trail leads to a dead end. Such is the case with the next question for our "Tracing Your Roots" genealogy-advice column.


"I cannot find my grandmother's family before 1900, although I did find a Mississippi marriage record for her from 1892, and it appears that they remained in the same county. What is the best way to trace my family further back in time, given that the 1890 census was destroyed by fire and water damage?" —Margo Draine

On Jan. 10, 1921, a fire in the Commerce Department building resulted in the destruction of most of the 1890 census records. Some fragments did survive, however, including general census population schedules, a list of selected Delaware African Americans, schedules of Union Civil War veterans or their widows, Oklahoma territorial schedules and other records.  

However, for you, depending on the community, there may be surviving town or county tax lists for the late 19th century. Checking them would allow you to see when your ancestors were living in a particular community over a set range of years.

If you believe that they owned land in the county circa 1890, you can also try researching land deeds. These would be on file at the Registry of Deeds at the court of the county in which your ancestors resided.

I would also suggest trying to search for the family in the earlier 1880 and 1870 federal censuses, which can be viewed for free online at FamilySearch.org.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root.


Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.

This answer was provided in consultation with researchers from New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country's leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website, AmericanAncestors.org, contains more than 300 million searchable records for research in New England, New York and beyond. With the leading experts in the field, NEHGS staff can provide assistance and guidance for questions in most research areas. They can also be hired to conduct research on your family. Learn more today.


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