The Missing New Mexico Census


It wasn’t that long ago that everyone residing in the United States filled out and mailed in the 2010 census form. Households were likely visited by a census taker, whose actual title is an “enumerator,” to ensure every person had been counted — and for good reason. The census is mandated by our Constitution.

Article 1, Section 2, states: “Enumeration shall be made within three years after the first meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent term of ten years, in such manner as they shall by law direct.” This is why the census is conducted every 10 years, starting in 1790.

The U.S. Census has also proven to be a valuable resource for historians and genealogists who are researching family history. In researching these history articles, I have used Socorro County census data on many occasions to find relatives of prominent or historic people: where they lived, their stated occupation and changes in spouses. It is also about the only record we have of area villages that no longer exist, such as the towns of Parida, Las Canas and San Marcial.

Census records serve as an invaluable look at how Socorro County has changed over the years.

Why The Census?

The purpose of the census is to determine how the number of seats in the House of Representatives is divided up among the states for equal representation. When the first census was conducted, in 1790 — with a population less than four million people — each House seat represented about 30,000 people. Today, after the 2010 census, about 709,000 constituents are represented by each House seat.

The census also determines the number of representatives from each state to the Electoral College, which is used to elect the president of the United States. States with a higher population have more “electoral votes” than smaller states. If you’re confused on this point, we’ll all see how it works in about a month’s time in the upcoming presidential election.

Over the years, the census has evolved into more than just counting heads. Additional questions have been added to track changes in “typical American,” movement of the population, occupations and a host of other information. In some years, the questions have become quite personal, such as family income, whether or not you own your house and its value, race and languages spoken in the home. These questions are used for future legislation, federal funding and for determining national trends.

However, you don’t have to worry about people snooping over your census forms to gather your personal or private information. Census forms are sealed for 72 years, which prohibits the release of personal information during an individual’s lifetime. The 1940 census forms were just released to the public under this law. The latest 2010 census will not be released until 2082.

The Census Bureau vigorously defends this rule with support from the courts – not even the FBI or the requests through Freedom of Information Act can access census records until they are released after the 72-year period.

Data analysis records, however, are public information. That is, numbers for the population counts, employment, home ownership, and the like, are made public as soon as they are available. Of course, this data contains no personal information, just the statistical summaries.

First New Mexico Censuses

The first census counts, from 1790 to 1840, were conducted by the U.S. Marshal Service. New Mexico was not included in these censuses, since it was not yet a U.S. Territory. In 1849, Congress created the Department of Interior. Part of their new role was to “supervise the taking and returning the census of the United States” for 1850.

New Mexico became a U.S. Territory just in time for the 1850 census. It took more than four years to tabulate the census, and resulted in a U.S. population of 23,191,876 – only 61,547 in New Mexico.

In regards to Socorro County, this census was rather meaningless. At that time, Socorro County ran from the Colorado River at the California border to Texas, much of which was still uncharted and the spattering of small settlements uncounted. Furthermore, Texas claimed the land, and the population, east of the Rio Grande. Texas gave up its hold on New Mexico in late 1850, after the June 1 census date.

All we really know is the population of Socorro was 553, which included about 100 U.S. soldiers stationed in town. Lemitar, with a population of 420, was somehow selected as the new county seat.

The Department of Interior also conducted the 1860 census. A year later, when the Civil War broke out, and they suddenly found themselves too busy to finish the census. There was also strong controversy over whether or not to count those in the southern states (the slaves), along with other issues related to the war.

In 1862, the General Land Office took over compiling the census and released a count of 31,443,321. This included the population in both northern and southern states based on June 1, 1860 — before a half million Americans perished in the war.

New Mexico’s population was 160,282; the population of Socorro County bloomed to 5,687, which included the soldiers stationed at Fort Conrad and Lemitar.

The 1870 census returned to the Department of Interior. With the end of slavery, this was the first U.S. census to consider all people as residents, including the former slaves. This raised the count of U.S. residents to about 39 million.

From 1860 to 1870, New Mexico and Socorro County saw its first influx of Anglos associated with the U.S. Army, ranchers, store owners and investors. Following the Civil War, many soldiers were discharged from Fort Craig; some remained in the area and married local women. Some of their descendents are today’s Socorro families. This elevated the population in Socorro County to 6,603.

Socorro’s Boom Years

Development of the area’s silver-rich mines in the late 1870s triggered unprecedented growth through the mid-1890s. This was Socorro’s “boom years” and a most interesting period in its history. Much of what Socorro is today was established during this period, including the genesis of many of Socorro’s present families and businesses.

The 1880 census was held just as this growth began. In that year, the census returned to the practice of using enumerators “to visit personally each dwelling house … and each family therein … to obtain each and every item of information and all the particulars.” They counted more than 50 million residents that year. Since then, enumerators have been used in every census.

The census counted 7,875 people in the county and 1,272 within the town of Socorro in 1880. However, this hardly tells the story. The ink on the census forms was still wet when the Santa Fe Railroad arrived and connected Socorro to the world. Instead of a month-long journey along El Camino Real to Santa Fe, it was now a four-hour train ride. The railroad also brought an unlimited supply of building materials and machinery to Socorro — and new people arrived almost daily.

In 1882, the City of Socorro was incorporated and the first issue of the Socorro Chieftain published (now El Defensor Chieftain). The following year, the Billings Smelter was built to process the rich ores from Socorro Peak and the Magdalena district. Soon, other industries — such as the Illinois Brewery, the Crown Mill, New Mexico School of Mines, and a score of hotels and saloons — continued Socorro’s growth. Many of Socorro’s historic and classic Territorial homes and buildings were built in this decade.

The 1890 census was eagerly anticipated to measure this growth. This was the first census to tabulate the population by machine, instead of the millions of census cards formerly counted by hand. The machine, called the Hollerith Tabulator, returned the final population count of 62,979,766 in less than one year.

Socorro’s population grew from 1,272 in 1880 to 2,300 in 1890, with about the same number of people living in Kelly and another 1,500 in San Marcial.

The 1890 census also counted 8,554 American Indians in New Mexico. Interestingly, only 14 were listed in Socorro County. This is because the several hundred Navajo living at Alamo remained unknown to the government. They were not “found” until the 1906 special statehood census.

Socorro’s boom days came to an end, in 1893, when the price of silver was devalued from about $1.50 per ounce to less than 60 cents. No longer profitable, silver mines and smelters closed across the country — including those in Kelly and Socorro. Unemployment across the nation rose from 3 percent to 4 percent to nearly 20 percent — including Socorro County. People moved to other areas in search of work, which left many towns with abandoned homes and buildings, and dwindling populations.

At its heyday before the 1893 crash, it is estimated that Socorro’s population was about 4,000 people; the 1900 census counted about 1,500.

The 1880 census was conducted in the very early days of Socorro’s boom time. The 1890 census missed the peak by three years, and by the 1900 census, the “good old days” were long gone. Census records are invaluable in researching Socorro and its families during these prosperous days, especially the census of 1890.

The New Census Bureau

Fraud was reported in the 1890 and 1900 censuses by several U.S. cities, such as Chicago and Philadelphia. They bolstered their population counts to falsely gain additional seats in the House of Representatives and receive more federal funds. With thousands of fictitious citizens on the census rolls, this naturally spawned voter fraud by registering these nonexistent people to vote.

To correct these fraud allegations, the job of overseeing the census was taken from the Department of Interior and given to the newly formed Bureau of Census, in 1903. One of the first tasks was passing the “72-year law.” As previously described, this law was to protect personal census information of respondents from public access for 72 years.

Many local historians were anxious to study Socorro’s boom period based on the 1890 census. These records documented Socorro County’s citizens with the names and ages of the head of household, the spouses and their children, where they lived, occupation, and a host of other invaluable historical information. However, under the 72-year law, historians and those who were researching family history would have to wait until 1962 to gain access to these priceless records.

The newly formed Census Bureau occupied office space in the Commerce Building in Washington, D.C. All the census forms and general population schedules of past censuses, including the 1890 census, were stored on pine shelves in the basement of the Commerce Building.

Census Bureau Fire

Jan. 10, 1921, was a cold, wintery day in Washington, D.C. In the Commerce Building, James Foster kept busy shoveling coal into the furnaces and boilers in an attempt to keep the massive building warm. About 5 p.m., he noticed smoke coming up from the basement boilers, although he could not locate any flames. Taking no chances, he called the fire department.

After some difficulty negotiating the thick smoke in the basement, firemen located the fire near one of the boiler rooms and it was burning thousands of census records.

The firefighters got 20 fire hoses into the building and pumped thousands of gallons of water into the basement to extinguish the fire. By the time the sun set, a large crowd had gathered to watch the black smoke belch from the Commerce Building.

The fire was reported as contained at 9:45 p.m., although water continued to be pumped into the basement until about 10:30 p.m. The fire remained confined to the basement where the census records were stored. Only smoke and some water damage was reported on the other floors of the building.

The following morning, Department of Commerce and Bureau of Census personnel entered the basement to see what damage might have been done. Thousands of census records were destroyed. The shelves containing the 1890 census received extensive damage. It was an archivist’s and historian’s nightmare.

Chief Engineer and Electrician John Parsons reported the water was 14-16 inches deep when he inspected it on Jan. 11. Census Director Sam Rogers estimated 25 per cent of the 1890 records had been destroyed by the fire, while another 50 percent had been water damaged. Census Bureau Clerk Tom Fitzgerald was not so optimistic. He reported the priceless 1890 census records were “certain to be absolutely ruined.” There was no known method of restoring the legibility of the water soaked records, most having been filled out using liquid ink pens.

It was not just the 1890 census that suffered extensive damage. Records from 1830, 1840, 1880, 1900 and 1910 censuses had also received some level of damage. In all, 8,919 volumes of records were destroyed. Fortunately, the just-completed 1920 census records were located in another building and not yet stored in the Commerce Building.

Fire investigation was fairly crude in the 1920s. About all investigators determined is the fire seemed to burn the longest in the northwest corner of the basement, thus the presumed point of origin. Chief Census Clerk E.M. Libbey finally reported that no cause for the fire could be determined.

By February 1921, the still soggy 1890 census records sat in the basement.

The Aftermath

Of the various restoration experts called in, all agreed that salvaging 63 million soggy records or recopying them onto new forms would be an impossible task. Fire and water damage had taken too much of a toll.

Census Director Sam Rogers reported to Congress that the 1890 records were beyond salvage and asked Congress to authorize their destruction. Immediately, many national groups, from the Daughters of the American Revolution to national genealogical and historical groups, protested the destruction of these irreplaceable census records.

While awaiting Congress to make a decision on the records, they were removed from the water-soaked basement to a nearby warehouse for storage — and to dry out. This presented another problem: the volumes of 1890 records were simply piled in the new warehouse without any sort of order.

Government workers and volunteers, in an attempt to place the records back into some sort of order, gave up in disgust. The ink on most records had nearly dissolved, which left the forms unreadable. Burned page edges destroyed identification markers, and most pages were now permanently glued together as the soggy pages dried.

In 1922, new Census Director William Steuart complained that the unorganized stacks of census records could not be consulted or used, and feared their continued deterioration. He ordered the boxes of records returned to the Commerce Building to be sorted, placed back into state-by-state order, and in an attempt to bind the ruined pages back into volumes. Once the records were back at the Commerce Building, Director Steuart soon realized efforts to salvage the records were futile. The virtually useless 1890 census records remained stored in the Commerce Building for the next 12 years.

This disaster spurred cries from congressmen and citizens alike for a fireproof National Archive building to preserve the nation’s vital records. Finally, on Feb. 20, 1933, President Herbert Hoover laid the cornerstone for the National Archive Building. The following day, Congress authorized the destruction of the ruined 1890 census records. They were destroyed, in 1934, and included New Mexico’s census forms.

Surviving Remnants

During World War II, the Census Bureau was moved to Federal Office Building 3 to make room for the war effort. During this move, a bundle of burned forms were found. They turned out to be a few 1890 census schedules from Illinois that escaped destruction. For years, this was the only known survivor of the 1890 census.

Then, in 1953, the Dependents Claims Service of the Veterans Administration found burned fragments of the missing census from a few other states. These were given to the National Archives, who in turn, returned them to the Bureau of Census.

No other remnants of the 1890 census are known to exist. Of the fragments found, it represents the records for 74,344 people — less than 1 percent of the 63 million residents counted that year.

All of the known 1890 fragments have been microfilmed by the Census Bureau for archival purposes. One copy was given to, who is trying to reconstruct the 1890 census based on business directories and newspapers of the time. Only 10 family surnames from New Mexico are contained in the surviving 1890 census, none from Socorro County.

The Census Bureau remained in Federal Office Building 3 until it was ordered condemned, in 2001. A new headquarters building was built in Suitland, Md. The Census Bureau moved into their new building 2006-2007, but no new remnants of the 1890 census were found.

In 1890, the New Mexico population was 153,393, which consisted of 142,918 Whites and Hispanics, 1,956 “black Negroes” and 8,554 American Indians.

In 1990, New Mexico’s population was 1,515,069, having grown by almost a factor of 10 in 100 years. There were 764,164 Whites, 579,224 Hispanics, 30,210 Blacks and 134,355 American Indians.

The Census Bureau counted 2,059,180 New Mexicans during the 2010 census. Socorro County has 17,864 residents, with 9,051 residing within the Socorro City limits. Alamo is the county’s second most populous community.

I recommend you save the above population statistics – just in case the Census Bureau burns again.

All photos courtesy U.S. CENSUS BUREAU unless otherwise noted. Some of the references used in this article: U.S. National Archives; “Historical Census Statistics, 1790-1990,” U.S. Census Bureau; and the excellent fact-filled U.S. Census Bureau website,