Fire, Water, and the Closing of the Frontier

Chicksaw Indians in Oklahoma in cotton yard. Notice the re-touched highlights and shadows, added later for easier transfer to publication. Photograph by Julian Scott, 1891; Thomas Donaldson collection. Penn Museum image #165034.

Chicksaw Indians in Oklahoma in cotton yard. Notice the re-touched highlights and shadows, added later for easier transfer to publication. Photograph by Julian Scott, 1891; Thomas Donaldson collection. Penn Museum image #165034.

If you ever want to make a genealogist cry (no judgment here — that could be an entertaining time), just mention the 1890 United States census. It was a victim of destiny and bureaucrats, first damaged in a fire in 1921 and later destroyed by bone-headed paper pushers in 1933.

The first census to use automated computational methods,  the time taken to tabulate the census dropped from eight years for the 1880 census to one year for the 1890 census. The total population of 62,947,714 was announced after only six weeks of processing. The public reaction to this tabulation was disbelief, as it was widely believed that the “right answer” was at least 75,000,000. The census revealed 248,253 American Indians living in the United States, down from 400,764 in the census of 1850.

Noting that “unsettled” regions had shrunk to non-existence, and that first peoples were similarly dwindling, census officials paid special attention to American Indian populations, going so far as to designate a special agent in charge of the Indian portion of the eleventh census of the United States — one Thomas Corwin Donaldson (1843-1898). In this capacity he acquired about 1,500 photographs to illustrate the Report on Indians Taxed and Indians Not Taxed in the United States (Except Alaska) (1894). Most were bought from local photographic studios throughout the country, although some original photography was taken by special agents assigned to a particular area, the photography of Julian Scott (above) being an excellent example. Other artists for the project, who were responsible for photo-documenting a group of tribes, were Gilbert Gaul, Peter Moran, H. R. Poore and Walter Shirlaw. Images in this collection represent the work of little-known photographers and honestly portray the living conditions and personalities of their subjects.

"Photograph of class of 40 Sioux Indian students Sent in April 1890 from Fort Peck Mont. Agency school to Carlisle - They were all volunteers - three have since returned on account of failing in health - the others are doing nicely and are contented." Thomas Donaldson collection. Penn Museum image #174374

"Photograph of class of 40 Sioux Indian students Sent in April 1890 from Fort Peck Mont. Agency school to Carlisle (Indian Industrial School)– They were all volunteers – three have since returned on account of failing in health – the others are doing nicely and are contented." Thomas Donaldson collection. Penn Museum image #174374

Provenance for the Penn Museum archives’ collection of Donaldson images is incomplete; Donaldson’s son Thomas Blaine Donaldson offered for sale a large collection of photographs from the American West, and it is probable that our holdings were obtained at this time. However, we certainly don’t hold all of the material on the list and correspondence between Donaldson and then-director George Byron Gordon suggests a degree of feet-dragging.

In a letter on September 4, 1912 Donaldson says, “This isn’t a ‘nag’ and please do not consider it as such. I merely wanted to know whether or not you’d had a chance to decide on the Indian ‘chromos.” Later, on September 7, Donaldson encourages Gordon to take his time, “It’s too warm now to look at anything except a long glass with ice, and other things, in it.” However, Donaldson seems to lose patience by February, when he writes (referring to the building of the museum’s massive rotunda), “Can’t you omit a cornice, or a window, from that new $300,000 wing and buy that mammoth collection of Indian photographs? I don’t object to taking$199 or a few dollars less.”

Donaldson also collected American Indian objects while in the field –pottery and other materials in use from the Pueblos, Navajo, Apache, Yuma and Pitmans. He also acquired prehistoric vessels that the Indians themselves collected and kept in their homes.

When this collection came up for sale, Steward Culin, the head of the general ethnology section, encouraged the Board of Managers to seize the opportunity. The funds for this collection were provided by John Wanamaker, the department store magnate. We’re fairly certain that we obtained these photographs with the Donaldson objects, but aren’t sure why we didn’t obtain all of the images from the earlier correspondence between Donaldson and Gordon.

Copies of the images exist elsewhere, but are of exceptional historical importance when one remembers that the data that these images were meant to accompany was destroyed by disaster and incompetence.

Photo of Ojibway (Chippewa) Indians smoking and tanning buckskins in a camp. Collected for the Eleventh Census of the United States, 1890. Photographed by Ingersoll photo studio, St. Paul (Minn); Thomas Donaldson collection. Penn Museum image #148617

Photo of Ojibway (Chippewa) Indians smoking and tanning buckskins in a camp. Collected for the Eleventh Census of the United States, 1890. Photographed by Ingersoll photo studio, St. Paul (Minn); Thomas Donaldson collection. Penn Museum image #148617

Although, as mentioned earlier, the 1890 census records were processed and published in record time, their conservation needs were not taken seriously in the subsequent decades. Kellee Blake’s extremely readable article in Prologue, the publication of the National Archives, explains the unfortunate fate of these documents:

Despite repeated ongoing requests by the secretary of commerce and others for an archives building where all census schedules could be safely stored, by January 10, 1921, the schedules could be found piled in an orderly manner on closely placed pine shelves in an unlocked file room in the basement of the Commerce Building.

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.

Twenty-five percent of these records fed the fire; another fifty percent were damaged by smoke and water. However, no serious preservation program was initiated to help recover the data contained therein, and the survivng records were not treated with the care they deserved.

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).”

Thus, the entirety of the census data was lost forever. Donaldson’s findings were illustrative rather than quantitative, but continue to provide valubale information to historians and anthropologists studying American Indian groups to this day.

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