I call the twenty-year gulf between the 1880 census and the 1900 census “the donut hole.”
I’m not the first and sure won’t be the last to lose relatives on either side of it. A disastrous fire destroyed a large percentage of the 1890 census.
People don’t often realize that portions of that 1890 census survive. Your county of research may have a surviving 1890 census fragment.
A Huge Chasm
If none survive, you’ll need to use all your genealogical sleuthing skills. We must be able to know that a person we find “on the inside” (the 1880 census) is the same person we find “on the outside” (the 1900 census). Twenty years is a huge amount of time in family history.
Consider this: a couple can have a child right after 1880 who is grown and gone by 1900. In farming communities, teenagers often lived as hired hands in other families. They also may have lived elsewhere to go to school (especially African-Americans).
If this is a family you have only researched in census records, you can easily miss family members.This is one of the chief weaknesses of census records, in my opinion. We are overly dependent upon them to reconstruct families.
For example, according to her death certificate Julia Adams of Montgomery County, TN was born in 1881:Julia Adams
However, if you look at her father Lucas Walker’s household in 1900, she is not there:1900 Lucas Walker
And that’s because she married James Adams in 1897:Marriage Record
If you didn’t discover Julia from some other record or source, she would not have been included in this family.
Zeffie Whitaker was born in 1883. Her father Sam Whitaker’s household in 1900, likewise, does not include her:1900 Whitaker
She had married the neighbor’s son Robert Allison in 1899:Marriage Record
Zeffie lived in the household next door to her dad in 1900.
Censuses Never Tell the Whole Story
Between 1880 and 1900, we need to examine other sources for information about our ancestors. Deeds, vital records, court records, tax records, headstones and bible records are some of the things we can use.
So beware and be vigilant of people born in the early 1880s “inside the donut.” Tell me in the comments if any of you have “lost” an ancestor in the gap? If you found them, how did you verify that it was the correct person?
I am an engineer by day, but my true passion lies in genealogy. I have been a researcher, writer, lecturer and teacher for over twenty years. This blog is where I share family history methods, resources, tips and advice, with an emphasis on slave research, slavery and its aftermath. This lifelong quest has helped me to better know my family’s past. I’ve taken back– reclaimed– some of that lost memory, especially that of my enslaved ancestors. I hope you’ll sign up to receive my posts—if you do, you’ll get a free PDF with some of my favorite tips! And please do share posts that interest you.
For me it’s usually widows who disappear down the donut hole. Child living with widowed mother in 1900, no trace of a woman by that name on the other end because she had not yet married in 1880. If there is a death certificate or something with her maiden name it helps, same with a marriage record. But without a maiden name you’re stuck, no way to find the late husband’s name.
I’m quite familiar with this road bump! Unfortunately, I AM one of those persons who has had to rely on census records to make connections. USUALLY, ( with my ancestors), it’s the women who get lost in this 20 yr. gap, mainly because they have married, and to an unknown. In most cases, the hurdle has proven to be one of such insurmountable magnitude, that I never located the missing. The times I have been successful, I’ve either been scrolling through page by page, and luck upon them; fortunate enough tlo be researching a state which has d/c’s online, and find kin while browsing records, and discover this or that person is the son/daughter of familiar relatives.
Yep. I’ve tried to trace three people whom I believe to have been enslaved by my Great-Great grandfather in Florida. I know where they were in 1870 (his household) in 1880 (their own household), but not a clue in 1900. Total dead end.
Excellent article. The Internet can only take you so far. You have to do the “leg work” to find some ancestors. A visit to a local court house, cemetery or church may be the only way. : )
Yes! Yes! Yes! Great post. This happened to me. I never could confirm that a certain couple was my great-grandfather’s parents because he was born in 1880 (and missed by the 1880 census) and then in 1900, he was living with a white family, although the suspected parents were nearby. Then, in 1910, he was deceased. It was just last week when a DNA connection in 23andMe confirmed that he was their son.
Yes Lawd! I hit that Bermuda Triangle all the time with many of my ancestors who were starting to age by the time slavery ended in 1865. I usually can find them in the 1870 & 1880 census. But by 1900, they have vanished completely and I am definitely forced to turn to other sources like Obituaries, Mortality Schedules, Almshouse Records (if available), Church Records, Mortuary Records, etc., to determine their death.
Excellent post my friend!