Sunday, January 29, 2012

What Happened in 1921 That Burned the People of 1890?

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Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan in "The Kid" in 1921

I am new to genealogy research so I am sure my recent "aha" moment is no news to the men and women who have been doing this for many years. I kept noticing a hole in my census findings for my Haywood County ancestors in 1890.

Digging a little deeper, I discovered the majority of the census records for 1890 were destroyed by a fire on January 10, 1921. My curiosity was peaked and it seems to be such a significant loss for genealogists, I decided to explore both the loss of the records and what was going on during that time in history to see what exactly happened.

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Postcard from Hot Springs, Arkansas, 1921


In early 1921, "The Kid" starring Charlie Chaplin had just opened, the very first religious service was broadcast in the U.S. from KDKA Radio of Pittsburgh and Hot Springs, Arkansas had just become the eighteenth location to be designated as a National Park. 

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Charles Buchanan and Nancy Jane Yelverton Lovelace, date unknown

In Haywood County, TN the home of Charlie B. and Nancy Jane Lovelace had finally begun to empty as the last of their 12 children were finally leaving (two additional children had died young). Their son Jim and his wife Ruby were next door with their six children including my grandfather Guy who was five. Ruby was pregnant with what we now know was her youngest daughter, Marie.

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The Willie Brantley family in 1926

About three miles north, Willie and Allie Brantley were setting up their farm and already had a 3-year old, my grandmother Virginia, and a toddler, her sister Cordilia. They were living next door to Archie and Mary Castellaw Brantley and the family matriarch, Margaret Rebecca Steele Brantley. Their daughter, Betty, would arrive in 1926.

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The Bob Castellaw family around 1912

Just a few miles east and right across from Holly Grove church, the Bob Castellaw home was full of children, from the oldest, Isaac, to the youngest, my grandmother Elizabeth who was six. Bob's mother, Nancy Mariana Johnson who had lived right across the road had just passed away on January 8, 1921.

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The Will Williams family around 1921

If you went south, toward Madison County, you would have found things were looking brighter for my great grandfather, Will Williams. His wife had died six years earlier and he had struggled for a while to keep things together and his in-laws had even threatened to take away his son, Bo, my grandfather. But, by 1921 he had two daughters with his new wife, Eva, and she was pregnant with another. Eventually, they would have eight children together.

In Washington D.C., Warren G. Harding was about to be inaugurated as the twenty-ninth President of the United States and the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution had just gone into effect, prohibiting the making, selling, possession, and consumption of alcoholic beverages...creating the opportunity for moonshiners and planting the seed that would become NASCAR.

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Commerce Department Building
19th Steet and Pennsylvania Avenue, northwest of the White House

In 1921, there was no "National Archives" so the eleventh census of the United States, taken in 1890, was stored in the Commerce Department Building which was at 19th Steet and Pennsylvania Avenue, northwest of the White House.

It was a treasure trove of information and was the first census to use "punchcards and an electrical tabulation system." The 1890 census had generated, for the first time, a separate form for each family, the number of children born vs. number living and even included a question about Civil War service.

Unfortunately, most of that information is gone. An article written by Kellee Blake in 1996 for "Prologue Magazine" explains what happened.
"At about five o'clock on that afternoon, building fireman James Foster noticed smoke coming through openings around pipes that ran from the boiler room into the file room. Foster saw no fire but immediately reported the smoke to the desk watchman, who called the fire department.

Minutes later, on the fifth floor, a watchman noticed smoke in the men's bathroom, took the elevator to the basement, was forced back by the dense smoke, and went to the watchman's desk. By then, the fire department had arrived, the house alarm was pulled (reportedly at 5:30), and a dozen employees still working on upper floors evacuated. A total of three alarms and a general local call were turned in.

After some setbacks from the intense smoke, firemen gained access to the basement. While a crowd of ten thousand watched, they poured twenty streams of water into the building and flooded the cellar through holes cut into the concrete floor. The fire did not go above the basement, seemingly thanks to a fireproofed floor. By 9:45 p.m. the fire was extinguished, but firemen poured water into the burned area past 10:30 p.m. Disaster planning and recovery were almost unknown in 1921. With the blaze extinguished, despite the obvious damage and need for immediate salvage efforts, the chief clerk opened windows to let out the smoke, and except for watchmen on patrol, everyone went home."
Fortunately, the census schedules of 1790-1820 and 1850-1870 were on the fifth floor of the Commerce Building and not damaged.

What happened next is even more frustrating than when CVS destroyed the Union Avenue Baptist Church (my lifelong anti-CVS protest is still strong, see CVS Killed My Grandma).

The records that had been ruined or damaged had been moved to a warehouse for temporary storage while rumors were circulating among those who cared that they would be completely destroyed rather than spend any government money on any restoration. It seems historians, government officials, genealogical organizations and others protested loudly and any thought of destruction of the records was quieted.  In May 1921, everything was taken back to the Commerce Building.

For ten years, what remained of the 1890 census was kept in the Commerce Building but apparently no real recovery was initiated. What happened next is really insane.
"In December 1932, in accordance with federal records procedures at the time, the Chief Clerk of the Bureau of Census sent the Librarian of Congress a list of papers no longer necessary for current business and scheduled for destruction. He asked the Librarian to report back to him any documents that should be retained for their historical interest. Item 22 on the list for Bureau of the Census read "Schedules, Population . . . 1890, Original." The Librarian identified no records as permanent, the list was sent forward, and Congress authorized destruction on February 21, 1933. At least one report states the 1890 census papers were finally destroyed in 1935, and a small scribbled note found in a Census Bureau file states "remaining schedules destroyed by Department of Commerce in 1934 (not approved by the Geographer)."
What the heck people of 1932? I understand the depression was going on but come on.

These are a few fragments of the records remaining from Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, South Dakota, Texas, and the District of Columbia but only 6,160 names are included.

If you are interested in the topic, this presentation by archivist Constance Potter looks at why some records did not survive and how others just made it to the National Archives.

For more about my family research, visit my Blog Home Page or the Haywood County Line Genealogy Page.

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