Old Newspaper Records: Substitutions for the 1890 US Federal Census

Old newspaper records are one of the best substitutes for the 1890 census, which was destroyed in a fire in the 1930s. The absence of this census is often frustrating to genealogists. But, there are a number of alternate sources you can use to fill in the information gaps. Old newspapers are a very effective and important record set in your genealogical quest.

Click Here to listen to the podcast.

As most genealogists know, the 1890 US federal census was accidentally destroyed—well, most of it—in a fire in the 1930s. This loss of information was a tragedy of monumental proportions for historians and genealogists alike. It leaves a frustrating twenty-year gap in the United States’ historical record, which is a long gap in which many different things can happen in a family. Births, deaths, marriages, moves, and more simply vanished. At least, they vanished from the most obvious place to look for them.

The good news is that there are plenty of other, alternate resources that genealogists can use to fill in those blanks left by the absence of the 1890 census. Old newspapers are one of them.

In fact, old newspaper records are an invaluable genealogical resource for all kinds of reasons. Its ability to allow you to fill in the gaps of what was happening in your family between 1880 and 1900 is just one of the many uses of this recordset. Old newspapers, especially ones published in the late 19th century and early 20th century, are full of social details from our ancestors’ lives. It isn’t uncommon for them to mention people visiting from out of town, people in town who went to visit people out of town and to give elaborate details of weddings, funerals, family reunions, anniversary parties, and even children’s birthday parties.

If you know where your ancestors lived in 1880 but are having trouble finding them in 1900, they may have moved. If they did, their hometown newspaper almost certainly mentioned it. The date of the move and the destination are typically included in such announcements, so you will know which newspapers in what town to look in to pick up their trail (and find them in later census records).

Does the 1900 census mention a female ancestor being the mother of more children than you knew? This probably means she had some kids between 1880 and 1900. Some may have died in early childhood, while others could have even grown up, gotten married, and moved out in that time. Old newspaper records can help you find the birth records for those missing children, which allows you to let them take their rightful place on your family tree.

Is an ancestor who was in the 1880 census missing in the 1900 one? It is possible they died in the interim or got married and changed their surname, in the case of women. Old newspaper records will help you fill in that information, as well. With this information in hand, you can order death or marriage certificates from the state where your ancestors lived to bolster your family tree’s accuracy further.

Basically, if anything you are missing that the 1890 census might have revealed to you, looking in the appropriate old newspapers gives you a high chance of finding this missing information.