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.