The records burned! Now what?

In our history, there have been too many instances when fires or natural disasters destroyed records of great importance, particularly to genealogists.

1890 Census

A century ago, the 1890 census schedules were neatly stored on pine shelves in the basement of the Commerce Department in Washington, D.C. They differed from previous censuses by providing a schedule for each family with more questions about race, English-language ability, immigration and naturalization, number of children born and Civil War service. Over 99 percent of the 1890 Census records were destroyed in a 1921 fire. No cause was ever determined.

What survived included a fragment of the population schedules for parts of one or two counties in Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, South Dakota and five counties in Texas; some Oklahoma Territory heads of household in the counties of Beaver, Canadian, Cleveland, Kingfisher, Logan, Oklahoma and Payne; and an incomplete set of special schedules enumerating Civil War Union veterans and widows.

To substitute for this loss, try city directories, tax lists, state censuses and other records created between 1880 and 1900. Also check Ancestry at

Military records

The National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis had a massive fire in 1973 and, fortunately, the government had learned some lessons from the 1921 fire. Recovery of its records began before the fire was extinguished, other agencies were ordered to preserve any record that might be helpful in reconstructing the NPRC collection, remaining records were removed from the site, the waterlogged building was sprayed with a mold-prevention agent and thousands of plastic crates containing smoky, water-logged records were transported to enormous vacuum-drying chambers to squeeze the water out of them.

What was lost? Up to 18 million official military personnel files for:

· Army (80% of discharges from Nov 1, 1912, to Jan 1, 1960) and

· Air Force (75% of discharges from Sept 25, 1947 to Jan. 1, 1964).

What survived? About 6.5 million records.

From related records, the NPRC almost immediately began reconstruction efforts and it continues today.

Veterans and their next-of-kin can obtain their reconstructed service records and discharge papers. For information, go to

Immigration records

Not many know that Ellis Island, America’s primary immigration port, had a major fire in 1897 — that is, until the family historian looks for an ancestor’s record of arrival between 1855 and 1897.

Our early immigrant processing procedures were left to individual states. But in 1855 Castle Garden (in Lower Manhattan) opened as New York’s official immigration station. By 1890 it was clear that Castle Garden could not handle the increasing number of immigrants so the federal government assumed responsibility for immigration throughout the nation.

It set up a temporary immigration facility as the Barge Office (also in Lower Manhattan) while Ellis Island was enlarged to open in 1892.

In 1897, fire gutted Ellis Island’s main building and several surrounding ones. The facility closed, of course, and immigrant processing returned to the Barge Office until 1900 when a new fireproof brick building was opened on Ellis Island. It closed again in 1954.

The fire destroyed all the records — passenger arrivals at Castle Garden (1855-1890), the Barge Office (1890-1891) and Ellis Island (1892-1897).

Now what does the descendant of an Ellis Island immigrant do? Fortunately, the U.S. Customs Office also collected passenger lists from the ships’ captains. These lists are on National Archives microfilm publication M237 (Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, 1820-1897).

Also try;;; and

Courthouse records

No doubt there is a courthouse in every county in the United States. These were established to retain and secure records of all sorts for its residents. The majority of them continue to function as repositories of crucial information about the county and its residents.

The courthouse in Hamilton County, Ohio, home to Cincinnati, a major city in the movement west, went through four courthouses from the original log cabin to a riot in 1884. Another great loss was in the Chicago fire in 1871. Union troops burned 12 courthouses to the ground in Georgia, and 25 courthouses in Virginia lost records.

All records in courthouses have legal implications so local officials have gone to extraordinary efforts to restore as much of the information as possible.

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