What Can You Learn From The 1890 Census Records?

By | July 7, 2017

Are you wondering what your ancestor did at the end of the 19th century? Well then the 1890 census records can give you so much information about their lives. Please read on and discover everything that these records have to offer.

1890 Census Records

But before I do discuss these census records!

Before I do go on and tell you about everything that you will find in these records I first want to tell you about my family history journey.

I became interested in my ancestry from hearing the many stories and little anecdotes that my father would recite to me and my brothers. They were fascinating to hear and at the time I couldn’t believe just how many there were.

Genealogy and Family History

As I got older I knew that I would have to record these stories because if I didn’t then they would be lost in time. Sure maybe other families would have similar stories but I was sure that some of them, if not most, would be unique to my family tree.

I began to type up these stories on the computer. I soon realized though that there was more that I could do to make my family history interested. I thought that I could add charts to these stories so that anyone reading could see how these people related to me and my father.

I therefore needed a genealogy software program so that I could add in what I knew about my family tree. My father had spent several years researching our family history so I had quite a lot of information that I could put in.

I then turned my attention to census records. These were a great help to me. They helped me not only extend my tree back further generations but also I used them to find cousins.

I probably got a little obsessive I must admit but I was fascinated with not only finding out who my ancestors were but also about their siblings and their descendants as well.

Using census records can greatly help you with building out your family tree. You will therefore find my census records tips to be of great help you, especially if you have an elusive ancestor that cannot seem to be found.

Find the stories in the 1890 census records!

So you know that you can get an awful lot of information from the census records. And I have told you that you can use that information to build out your family tree. But did you know that from these records you can also get stories as well. You’re probably wondering what I mean by this, well then I will explain.

Write A Family History Book

Look between the lines of the records!

I enjoyed searching through the census records and building my family tree. It became a quest to see how far back I could go and how much information that I could collect.

After some time of researching I had exhausted the genealogy aspect of my quest. As you may, (or may not know), genealogy is all about collecting names, dates, places and every little piece of information about our ancestry.

Family history is quite different as the focus is to find the stories. And census records can help you with that.

For example if you trace your ancestor through the records you may see that they move about the state or country quite a bit.

Why was your ancestor migrating from one place to another? Was it to find work, escaping poverty or was it some other reason?

That is just one example and there are many possible reasons for their migration. What I am trying to say is that if you look a little bit closer, if you rad between the lines then you can find out so much more about your ancestors. You just need to look.

So What’s In The 1890 Census Records?

I’m sorry but I will have to break some bad news to you. Unfortunately the 1890 census records were largely destroyed by a fire in 1921. There are only fragments of these records that remain that were held in the Commerce Department in Washington, DC.

Searching For Records

Only a small number of records do survive. In fact of the near 63 million people who were recorded only records containing 6,160 people have been salvaged. Despite this it is well worth checking to see if your ancestors’ records are available.

What’s in these records?


This element of the census records will obviously help you to find your ancestor. If you do have difficulty finding your ancestor then I have a couple of tips to help you.

Firstly, try alternative spellings of their first name or surname. I have had great luck using this technique. This has worked because when these records have been transcribed the details may not have been read correctly. This would probably be because of the enumerator’s fancy handwriting.

Secondly, try searching for your ancestor using just their initials. Sometimes your ancestor may have been recorded with just their initials.


Another great way to find your ancestor is to enter their date of birth. When you find someone matching your search check to see if that person’s age is similar to that of your ancestor.

Chances are that there maybe some discrepancy with the recorded age. So please be prepared for this.


Obviously you will know the sex of your ancestor. But there are circumstances where this can be invaluable to you.

If you have discovered a ‘new’ ancestor and their recorded name is illegible then how do you know whether they are male or female? This element can help you with that and it may help you to decipher what their name actually was.


This element can help to ascertain if you have found the right ancestor. It is another clue for you to show that you are on the right path, or right branch for that matter.

But if you didn’t know where your ancestor lived at the time of the 1890 census records then this can be another piece of the puzzle for you.

House and Land

Number of

There are three parts to this question that looks at your ancestor’s house:

  • Number of families in the house,
  • Number of persons in the house,
  • Number of persons in the family.


This question was first asked in the previous census records. It can help you to build out your family tree by informing you as to how everyone is related to the head of the household.

If you didn’t have this information then how could you build out your tree? Sure the recorded age can be a great help. But what if you had a male and female living together of similar age? You could deduce that they were husband and wife, but what if they were actually brother and sister.


This question went further than with the previous census record. The available choices were\:

  • White
  • Black
  • Mulatto
  • Quadroon
  • Octoroon
  • Chinese
  • Japanes
  • Indian

Color or race

Marital Status

The four possible answers that your ancestor could have recorded for this are:

  • Single,
  • Married,
  • Widowed, or
  • Divorced.

If you do find that your ancestor for example was a widow by the time of the 1890 census records then you will have some time frame as to when their partner died. So if he or she was still married in 1880 then you can deduce that their partner died sometime during 1880 to 1890.

Married during the year

This question asks whether the individual was married within a year of the census records being taken.


There are two questions relating to children. They are:

  • Total children born to mother, and
  • Number of children living

This is a great help to you as you can learn whether there are any children that are unaccounted for in your records.


Not only can you learn the birthplace of your ancestor but you can also learn the birthplace for his or her parents. This can therefore help you to go further back with your family tree.

Foreign born/naturalized

If your ancestor was born overseas then this question can help you to track down when they arrived in the United States. The second part of this question asks the individual whether they have been naturalized or whether they are in the process of doing so.


Knowing what your ancestor’s occupation can be quite interesting. It is another piece of the puzzle that you can collect from this question. It can also help you to know whether you are looking at the right person.

The second question relating to occupation is how many months that he or she was unemployed during the year.



The government wanted to know whether people were able to read or write. And they also wanted to know whether they could speak English. This can really help you to know your ancestor.


Was your ancestor suffering from:

  • Acute or chronic disease,
  • Defective in mind, sight, hearing or speech,
  • Crippled, maimed or deformed

Prisoner, convict, homeless child or pauper

The government also wanted to know whether the individual was a prisoner/convict or whether they were homeless or a pauper.

Home ownership

You can learn from this question whether your ancestor either owned or rented the house in which they lived in. And whether it was mortgaged or not.

A farmer

This question asked whether the head of the family was a farmer and if they rented or owned the farm.


The government wanted to know from this question the post office address of the owner.

Where Can I Find The 1890 Census Records?

Census records can tell you so much about your family history. And as I have discussed in this post there is plenty of information that you can collect from the 1890 census records. But where can you find them?

Where can I find the 1880 census records

Your FREE option!

My first suggestion to you is to try to find your ancestors for free. You will therefore need to go to FamilySearch. There are millions of names within their database and millions of records as well.

I have found many of my ancestors by using this website. By searching this website I have saved myself so much money that I would have no doubt spent elsewhere to get these records.

There is a drawback to this free option though and that is you may not find your ancestor within the FamilySearch database. You will therefore need to be prepared to spend some money in order to get the information that you are looking for.

Your PAID options!

For this reason I offer you two sites that will be of great use to you Ancestry and Find My Past. These two websites have been my go to places for me to find out my family history. Not only do they contain census records but they also have other records for you to search for as well.

Credit: Ancestry

There is a very high chance that you will find your ancestors within these two sites. They have much more records within their database compared to FamilySearch and they are always adding more information all the time.

My first choice though is Ancestry. You have no doubt heard about this genealogy search website and for good reason. They have billions of records and if you do get stuck then you can either ask staff for support or get help from the useful community.

If however I have not found my ancestor in their databases then my next choice is to go to FindMyPast. This is another excellent site for you to check out.

Final Thoughts

As I have shown you there is plenty of information that you can collect from census records and the 1890 records in particular. I suggest every so often for you to put into your family tree program what you have discovered.

You don’t want to overload yourself with all these names, dates, places, etc. and then try to make sense of it all. Work on one ancestor at a time and pace yourself.

To find out what is missing about your knowledge of your ancestor you could write a family history book. I have done the same thing and it has helped me to discover more about my ancestry.

As I type up the lives of my ancestors I can see from this what gaps there are in their story. I can then go back and collect more information in order to fill in these holes.

So to wrap up use these census records. They are a great help as they can give you the information that you are after. They can also lead you on to find the stories and also to search for more records about your ancestors.

Thank You and Please Leave A Comment

I hope you enjoyed this post explaining what you can learn from the 1890 census records. If you think that this post will be helpful to others then please share it with friends and family using the social media buttons below.

If you have any questions or comments then please leave a comment below. I would love to hear from you.

Author: Owain

Hello, Owain here. After researching my family history for a number of years I wanted to give back to the genealogy world. So here you will find guides, tips and product reviews that will help you on your genealogy journey.

6 thoughts on “What Can You Learn From The 1890 Census Records?

  1. Merry

    Great information as always Owain. I have used Ancestry.ca before but found it was expensive if you didn’t keep at your searches rather quickly. I didn’t get completed in a time frame that worked for me so had to take a break. I am still very interested and thanks for your wonderful information, I may have to give it another go. Thanks so much.

    1. Owain Post author

      My pleasure Merry. You may like to try FamilySearch before you try Ancestry again. FamilySearch is a free site so you may quite possibly find your ancestors there’s.

      All the best with your genealogy research.

  2. javiera

    Nice information! I did know anything about this before reading your post! There is just so much information that you can learn from these records.

    I didn’t even think about looking for stories as we’ll. great tip.

    Thanks a lot 😀

    1. Owain Post author

      Yeah I didn’t even think about looking for stories when I first started to look at census records. I was so excited to find my ancestors using these records and building my family tree.

      It was only after looking a little bit closer that I realized that there was even more that I could learn about them. And it helped me look for them by checking out other records as well.

  3. Lance

    Great information here. I have often wondered about researching my family history and like Merry mentioned above tried the ancestry.ca route but encountered the same issue as her. You have provided me with another option which inspires me to take up the search again. Thanks so much for this.

    1. Owain Post author

      Hi Lance,

      I am always pleased to hear when someone says that I have inspired them to trace their family history. There is just so much information out there that we can find. We just need to know where to look and how to look as well. Please check out the rest of this site as there is plenty of useful guides and tips that will help you along the way.

      All the best with your genealogy research.


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