An 1890 Census Fragment for Alaska is Rediscovered

Today’s post is by Claire Kluskens, Genealogy/Census Subject Matter Expert and Digital Projects Archivist at the National Archives in Washington, DC.

The National Archives recently digitized a previously unappreciated fragment of the 1890 census for Alaska. Located in Record Group 29: Records of the Bureau of the Census, digital images are in the National Archives Catalog as “Logbook of Frank Lowell, Special Agent, Alaska District No. 2, 1890 Census” (National Archives Identifier 202288465).

As most family history researchers know, most of the 1890 census was destroyed as the result of a fire in the Commerce Department Building in 1921. Only 6,160 persons are listed in the surviving population census records. See Kellee Blake, “’First in the Path of the Firemen:’ The Fate of the 1890 Population Census,” Prologue, Vol. 28, Nos. 1-2 (1996). Thus, any additional surviving “fragment” of that census is precious.

The population count of Alaska was one of the most difficult tasks undertaken by the Census Office in 1890. Congress authorized the employment of special agents to take a census of Alaska by a joint resolution of March 19, 1890 (26 Statutes at Large 670). Ivan Petroff was Special Agent in charge of the Census Office’s Twenty-first Division (Alaska). Collecting statistics in Alaska involved great difficulties because of the immense territory that needed to be covered within the brief period of the census year. The assistants who aided Petroff often could not be supplied with the necessary material and communication with them was difficult.

The Census Office first reported the statistical results of the Alaska population count in Census Bulletin No. 150, Population of Alaska—Official Count that was published November 28, 1891. Total population was 31,795 with 19,130 males and 12,665 females. These numbers were further broken down by race: White, Mixed (Russian and native), Indians, Mongolians, and “all others.” Counts for each village were also reported. Later, a more detailed description was given in the Report on Population and Resources of Alaska at the Eleventh Census, 1890 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1893).

Field operations for the 1890 census in Alaska were conducted in seven districts during 1890 and 1891 as follows: First (Southeastern), Second (Kadiak), Third (Unalaska), Fourth (Nushagak), Fifth (Kuskokwim), Sixth (Yukon), and Seventh (Arctic). The agents for the Seventh District, Mr. John W. Kelley and U.S. Revenue Marine Captain M. A. Healey, failed to conduct an actual enumeration but estimated there were 1,600 Kaogmutes and Noatagmutes “whom it was impossible for either agent to reach.” A map of these districts is shown below.

Map of 1890 Census Districts in Alaska from Report on Population and Resources of Alaska at the Eleventh Census, 1890.

Frank Lowell was the special agent for the Second District. He kept a logbook of his activities in Alaska from June 11 to September 28, 1890. He began at Kodiak by hiring sailors and preparing a schooner for the voyage. Each entry on pages 1 through 9 typically includes his location(s), expenses, wind direction, and numbers of persons enumerated, hours worked, and census forms used.

Mr. Lowell likely ran out of census forms, and therefore improvised by recording information about some households in his logbook. Therefore, 13 families in nine houses were enumerated in his logbook on pages 10 through 35. The left (even numbered) pages indicate the house number, number of persons in the house, family number, and number of persons in the family. “Family numbers” run from 5 to 17. “House numbers” are 4, 4 (repeated), 5, 6, 7, 7 (repeated), 8, 8 (repeated), 9, 10, 11, 12, 12 (repeated), which indicates that some houses contained two family units. The right (odd numbered) pages include some or all of the following information: name of each family member; age of each person if known; tribe and clan; marital status of head of household; number of children born to the mother and how many were still living; and occupation of head of household. It indicates if a family member could read or write or speak English. Chronic diseases suffered by the head of household or another specified family member are listed.

Cover of Frank Lowell’s Logbook.
Pages 10-11 of Frank Lowell’s log book that show one of the families enumerated. Click here to see the pages in the Catalog.

Frank Lowell’s logbook was accessioned into the National Archives more than 60 years ago. It was described by Katherine H. Davidson and Charlotte M. Ashby in Preliminary Inventory 161, Records of the Bureau of the Census (Washington, DC: National Archives, 1964) in Entry 118, Logbook, 1890, as “an interesting diary of” Frank Lowell’s “itinerary and activities while taking the census in Alaska, as well as population statistics for the Alaskan inhabitants.” (Emphasis added.) It further stated that “the statistics are arranged in the order of households enumerated.” (Emphasis added.) While these are accurate statements, they also overlook or understate the logbook’s significance as containing surviving fragments of the 1890 census, even though Davidson and Ashby were well aware that little of 1890 had survived. Sometimes it takes another pair of eyes to realize the significance of a record.