WPA Records for Genealogy: Historical Record Surveys, Local Histories and More

Have you used WPA records for genealogy? Their Historical Record Surveys and local and oral histories may help you in your family history research. Existing records and locations vary widely. Here are tips to help you in your search.

WPA records for genealogy

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, employees of the Works Progress Administration (WPA, also known as the Works Projects Administration) created new resources for U.S. genealogical research. It’s possible you’ve even consulted some of these without being aware of their WPA origins. After all, the projects and their formats varied. They didn’t always prominently credit the WPA and some were printed long afterward. We’re going to shine the spotlight on WPA-era local histories, oral histories and statewide Historical Record Surveys.

WPA Records for Genealogy: Local Histories

In Annie Barrows’ novel The Truth According to Us, Layla Beck heads to the small fictional town of Macedonia, West Virginia to write a local history as a WPA assignment. Drama ensues, both in Layla’s personal life and as she tries to learn local stories, which everyone reports a little differently. (We featured this book in the Genealogy Gems Book Club.)

Actually, local histories were written as WPA projects. Their scope, topics, and formats varied, depending on the unique background and resources of each region and how active WPA workers were in each state and county. For example, WPA historical materials in Morrison County, Minnesota include “histories on townships, cities, churches, schools, businesses, the military, and miscellaneous county history topics,” which have since been collected and reprinted by the county historical society. Many historical projects included photographs, such as this one for the city of New Orleans.

WPA Records for Genealogy: Oral Histories

WPA workers also captured oral histories of individuals, too. Many were collected in American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940, now online at the Library of Congress. According to the collection description, “The documents chronicle vivid life stories of Americans who lived at the turn of the century and include tales of meeting Billy the Kid, surviving the 1871 Chicago fire, pioneer journeys out West, factory work, and the immigrant experience. The documents often describe the informant’s physical appearance, family, education, income, occupation, political views, religion and mores.”

Other important WPA oral histories are narratives of former slaves and their families. You can browse an enormous collection of these online at the Library of Congress. These aren’t the ideal eyewitness accounts we wish for, as they were gathered so long after the end of slavery, from many who were young children at the time. Also, many researchers believe interviewees may not have spoken candidly, especially to white interviewers who may have known them personally.

It’s a long shot to find an ancestor mentioned by name in WPA oral histories. In some instances, pseudonyms were even used for names and places. But, you can still learn a lot from others’ descriptions of daily life and unusual events your ancestors may have experienced.

WPA oral history transcription

From one of the slave narratives mentioned in this article.

Historical Record Surveys

The Historical Record Surveys created by the WPA are among the most genealogically-valuable of their projects. “Under the auspices of the WPA, workers went to archives, historical societies, public and university libraries, and compiled inventories of manuscript collections,” writes Bryan Mulcahy in an online report. “They went to courthouses, town halls, offices in large cities, and vital statistics offices and inventoried records. Besides compiling indexes, they also transcribed some of the records they found.”

Today, many of their efforts still exist. They include indexes to cemeteries, newspapers, and naturalization records, as well as inventories of courthouse records, church records, and other manuscript collections in various archives or libraries. Of course, some records may have been moved or destroyed since inventories were created, but knowing what records existed around 1940 and what they were called may help you locate surviving collections. Some indexes, such as those of cemetery tombstone inscriptions, may actually be more valuable since they captured information from tombstones that may no longer exist or be legible.

A blank WPA Historical Records Survey church records inventory form. Image courtesy of the State Archives of Florida. Click this image to find it online at Florida Memory.

One great example is the Historical Records Survey for the state of Oregon, described as “the most comprehensive documentary project of Oregon history and related records of its time.” It includes historical essays, document transcriptions, interviews, research notes, photographs, pamphlets and more. According to its collection description, “The territorial and pioneer periods of the mid-to-late nineteenth century receive the greatest attention, with an emphasis on the growth of state government and infrastructure, business and agriculture, transportation, education, biography, and relations between social groups. Native Americans figure prominently in this collection.”

Finding WPA Records for Genealogy Online

Some WPA projects were carried out on a federal level and others by state agencies. They were never centrally published or collected. Today, surviving original files and published volumes are scattered across the country. Some can be found in the National Archives, many in state libraries or societies, and many more available at local repositories.

A Google search such as historical records surveys and the name of the state and/or county is a great way to start your search for WPA records for genealogy research. Some results will lead right to the kinds of resources you want, such as this guide to WPA records in archives in the Pacific Northwest. Others, such as this one for the Iowa Historical Records Survey published in The American Archivist, are mostly a history of the effort. However, they do contain several useful bibliographic citations to records that were created. Add the name of the county to your search and you may find more targeted results, such as this library catalog entry for the inventory of the Jasper County archives. Click here to learn more about Google searches for genealogy records you want to find.

Remember, though, that many WPA publications and collections aren’t identified as such. Don’t fixate on needing to find WPA listed in the title. Just concentrate your efforts on finding the local and oral histories, photos, historical record indexes and inventories, and other resources that may be out there. When you find one created during the Great Depression, you’ll know it may have been done by the WPA.

Love what you’re reading and want to learn more? Go deeper into genealogy “gems” like these in Lisa Louise Cooke’s Genealogy Gems Podcasts. Lisa produces a free internationally-renowned monthly podcast that’s had over 2.5 million downloads! Additionally, Genealogy Gems Premium website members also have access to her full archive of monthly Premium podcast epidodes: check out a full description of these here including Episode 2 on WPA records for genealogy.

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Atlas of Historical County Boundaries: Where are you?!

The online Atlas of Historical County Boundaries is a go-to resource for determining old U.S. county boundaries. Its popular, interactive map will re-launch later this fall. Meanwhile, you can still access county boundary data and even Google Earth compatible maps.

For quite some time, the online U.S. Atlas of Historical County Boundaries has flashed the following message at the top of its webpage:

Atlas of Historical County Boundaries error message

The first time I saw this message, I panicked. This is my favorite resource for quickly researching historical county boundaries in the U.S. The interactive map feature lets you click on a state and then on a county to see its boundaries on any exact date. I realized the rich data that feeds the interactive map is still there and you can still get to it.

Several months later, I noticed the out of order message was still there. I emailed the Newberry Library in Chicago which hosts the Atlas to see what they could share with Genealogy Gems about the Atlas and its future.

Curator Matt Rutherford replied right away: “We love Genealogy Gems! It’s such an excellent podcast.” (Lisa says “Thanks! We love you, too!”)

He explained that the online Atlas was originally meant to serve a small group of historians. When the interactive map’s code became outdated, the thought was to just let it die. He credits genealogists with giving it a future.

Atlas of historical county boundaries quote“Newberry heard loudly and clearly from the genealogy community about their love for the online Atlas,” says Matt. “It is because of the popularity of the Atlas among genealogists and due to Newberry’s commitment to serving the genealogy community that [we’ve] decided to dedicate resources to the interactive map’s redevelopment.”

When will the interactive map be back? “We do anticipate a launch in the fall, but we don’t have an exact date yet,” he says. “It takes time and funding to redevelop an interactive tool that is as data-rich as the Atlas. Once we got ‘under the hood,’ we realized that the redevelopment needed to be more extensive than originally anticipated.” (Genealogy Gems Premium website members can hear the full scoop from Matt in the Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast episode #137.)

How to find county boundaries with the Atlas of Historical County Boundaries in three steps


1. From the Atlas home page, click on the state of interest from the national interactive map.

2. From the state page, click on View Index of Counties and Equivalents. This will show you all current and past county names. (See image.)

3. From this page, click on your targeted county. You’ll find a timeline of that county’s boundary changes.

Use the timeline to discover what county your ancestors belonged to at any given time. Perhaps you’ll discover you should actually be looking for an ancestor’s marriage record or video how to use google earth for genealogyprobate in a parent county, one that existed there before the current county, or in a successor county later carved out of this one.

Google Earth Bonus: The Atlas of Historical Boundary Changes state pages include downloadable maps compatible with Google Earth and Google Maps. If you are not using Google Earth for genealogy yet, watch Lisa Louise Cooke’s free video to see how and why you want to use this amazing 3D map of the world for your family history!

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Premium Episode 72 – Improve Your Google Earth Tours, NewspaperMap

Date Published:  July 17, 2011

Click here to download the Show Notes pdf

Blog Post: My Continuing Genealogy Education
Ian’s blog 

I spent so many Sunday afternoon’s watching Shirley Temple movies on TV when I was little, and so we had all the VHS movies when Hannah was little, and now I have all the DVDs, but Hannah and I had the very special opportunity to view them the old fashioned way last night – on the big screen at the Stanford Theater


Tips for Finding Lost Classmates
The two best suggestions:
#1 Search Facebook
#2 Search www.pipl.com

Finding Living Relatives Recorded Webinar available until 9/1/11 at the Genealogy Gems Store at Lulu  

My high school class has created a Group on Facebook and an Event page for the upcoming 30th reunion which has gone a long way to helping us locate classmates.  Those on Facebook, each seem to know a few people, and they urge them to join the group, and then it keeps spreading from there.  I find it’s also going a long way to sort of break the ice and get people reconnecting which I think will make the reunion so much more fun because we’ll already be sort of reacquainted and comfortable with each other again.  Much like what I see at genealogy conferences – just having met someone and chatted on facebook makes you feel like old friends when you finally meet up in person.

Diana posted the following on Facebook: “Found quite a treasure trove the other day. A small town library digitized their entire collection of the town’s newspapers dating back to the 1870’s.  I was able to find almost 100 different references to my family in the newspaper, starting with their arrival and purchase of land in 1890.  Discovered that my great-great-grandfather was quite a businessman and was involved in a couple of scandals.  Also learned that my great-great-great-grandfather was in the Civil War, which led to me ordering his records from the Soldier’s Home in Quincy, IL.  Currently trying to learn if my great-great-great-grandmother was sent to a “hospital for the insane” prior to her death.  All of this from ONE visit to a library in a one-traffic light town!”

GEM:  Newspaper Map 


Newspaper Map.com has an interactive map which allows you to search over  10,000 newspapers from all over the world and see where they are located.  And You can browse, and read them all right online. Simply  search by specific location, zoom in on specific areas of interest and click on the icon for the available newspapers.

For example, the third field in the search box in the upper right hand corner is Search place so I just typed in California, United States  ns of mostly yellow little icons appear on the map and the map is zoomed in to California.

In the bottom right corner is the color code guide for the icons.  Yellow is for newspapers in English, but you’ll find that there are several different languages supported.

If I’m interested in the newspapers in the Sacramento area I can click the zoom plus sign in the upper right corner to zoom in closer and click on each icon in that area to see which newspapers they have access to.  Most of these are modern day newspapers, and when you click on the icon you’ll learn not only which newspaper it is but you’ll see that you can often click the language  you want the paper translated into. If you want to read the paper in it’s native language, just click the thumbnail image of the paper.  And again, because these are modern day papers most likely you’ll be taken to that newspapers website and you’ll be reading the paper on their site.  This is a neat way to get familiar with an area in your country or around the world as it is today.

But there are historical newspapers available as well!  To get to those, head over to the box in the upper left corner and click the Historical button.   When you do that the map changes – the current newspaper icons disappear and all that are left are icons plotting historical newspapers available online for that area.

In the case of the Sacramento California area that leaves me with The Record from 1893 to 1901 and a little further southeast the Amador Ledger which spans from 1875 into the 20th century.  When I click through to either of these I find that they are from the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America website.

What if I want to find newspapers near Gladbeck Germany where my ancestors on my mom’s side once lived?  As I start to type Gladbeck in the search box the site prompts me for Germany as it is looking for locations that match as I type.

Once the map zooms in to Gladbeck, Germany, the town is pretty much dead center.  That’s good because unfortunately the site doesn’t put a place mark on the town you requested.  That would be a nice feature to see in the future, because certainly we’ll be searching some areas we’re not that familiar with.

I find a newspaper in the nearby town of Essen, and when I click on the icon I get that dialogue box again where I can then click on English so that when I’m taken to the website for that paper it will be already translated into English for me.

Over in the black box in the supper left corner you can click the plus button so that you can see all of the newspapers currently available.  If you want to thin it down to just the major newspapers, click the minus button.

When I click the Historical button unfortunately I don’t see any historic papers plotted.  In that case you have to zoom out to see where the closest place mark is, and in this case that looks like Luxemburg.

When you want to start a new search, and sort of get back to a clean slate, just click on the words Newspaper Map in the black box in the upper left corner.

New newspaper content is being added every day online and it’s a challenge for the folks at newspaper Map to add them all.  If you know of an online newspaper you can add it to the map!  Just head back up to the box in the upper left corner and click the Add/Correct button.   Fill in the field and click Submit.  This means we can all chip in and Newspaper map just be able to be that one stop shopping place for finding online newspapers.  

And of course they have all the social media links so that you can tell all your friends about what you’re finding at newspapermap.

Tip:  The search is spelling- and case sensitive, so keep that in mind.

Also you can Click on the map and drag it around just like you do with Google Earth UK version called  Newspaper Map UK  German version Zeitungskarte Japanese Newspaper Map 新聞地図 -世界のすべてのオンライン新聞

Thanks to Barbara for the lead on this great little gem and you can visit Barbara at her blog at blog: http://outofmytree.wordpress.com/ 

GEM:  Improve Your Google Earth for Genealogy Tours

If recording your family history tour is the last thing you do before saving your Google Earth file (KMZ) then the tour file will be the last thing in your folder. Here are two suggestions for improving the usability of the entire Family History Tour folder for your recipients:

1) Drag and Drop the Family History Tour recording so that it is the first item in the folder.  That way your viewers will see it first and click on it.

2) Better yet, create a main folder that contains your recorded tour and a sub folder containing all of the content.  That way when the recipient clicks on the tour file to launch it, it will load up in the Temporary Places showing the recorded tour, and a folder with all the content.

TIP: If you close the content folder (by clicking the little arrow next to it in “My Places”) BEFORE you save the file, the folder will appear closed when opened again. This just gives a nice and neat file that makes it clear that the first thing you want them to do is play the tour file.

TIP: You could even name the recorded tour file something like:  “TOUR – click this file first to play tour)”  If you name it that, it will appear that way in My Places and provide instructions to the recipient. 

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Find Historical Photos at Flickr Creative Commons

find historical photos for genealogyHistorical photos and images can bring depth and understanding to genealogical findings. In the case of sharing your family history with others in your family who don’t share your passion for genealogy, they are an essential part of bringing the family history information to life.

One of the best free online resources for historical photos is the Creative Commons at Flickr. Flickr is a popular photo, image and video hosting and sharing service. It’s a great platform for sharing your favorite photos with family and friends. It’s also an excellent place to find images that fit into your family history.

An important part of the Flickr world is Creative Commons, which describes itself as part of a “worldwide movement for sharing historical and out-of-copyright images.”

Groups and individuals alike upload old images, tag and source them, and make them available to others through the Creative Commons. And when it comes to groups, the list of participants is impressive. The British Library photostream features over a million images in its photostream! And a robust collection of historical photos and images can be found at the (U.S.) Library of Congress photostream, with over 34,000+ photos.

When searching the Creative Commons, be sure to look for your favorite libraries and historical societies. If you don’t find them today, don’t worry. Check back regularly because new content is being added all the time.

Here’s another example of what you can find at the Creative Commons. The Netherlands Institute of Military History (Nederlands Instituut voor Militaire Historie) has a photostream.

"Exercise Field Artillery Corps" album, image AKL092038, Netherlands Institute of Military History uploads at Flickr Creative Commons, https://www.flickr.com/photos/nimhimages/16026248719/.

“Exercise Field Artillery Corps” album, image AKL092038, Netherlands Institute of Military History uploads at Flickr Creative Commons, https://www.flickr.com/photos/nimhimages/16026248719/.

According to the Netherlands Institute of Military History blog, “The Institute exists to serve all those with an interest in the military past of the Netherlands. Its sphere of activities covers the Dutch armed forces on land, at sea and in the air, from the sixteenth century until now. The staff of the NIMH administer a unique military history collection containing approximately 2 million images, of which they will be uploading many to the site.”

Back in 2015 when we first wrote about their brand new photostream it only included a couple dozen images, like the one shown here. Today they have well over 3,300.

Tips for Finding and Using Historical Photos at the Creative Commons

Searching for Historical Photos: On a photostream home page, click the search icon (magnifying glass) just above the first row of photos in the upper right corner. A search box will pop up at the top of the page. Enter Keywords to search for images within that photostream. (Image below)

photostream search

Location isn’t Everything: Just like with brick and mortar libraries, don’t let the location of the library or archive hosting the photostream fool you! Their collections are not limited to only items in their area. If you’re in search of something specific, try the Flickr Advanced Search page here.

Understanding Downloading and Copyright: Those who post images to Flickr Creative Commons offer different rights to those who want to download and use their images. Described here (and searchable here by the kinds of rights you want), those rights may include the ability to use a photo as long as it’s for noncommercial purposes and proper credit is given. Perfect for a responsible, source-citing genealogist!

10 Favorite Flickr Photostreams with Historical Focus

It would be impossible to list all of the potential photostreams at Flickr’s Creative Commons that feature historical photos, so I won’t even try. However, I’m happy to provide this list of favorites, which illustrates the breath and depth of possiblities. I hope it inspires you to search out your favorite library or archive at the Creative Commons.

(Organized by number of photos)

Internet Archive Book Images
5,240,000+ Photos
Though not currently organized by Albums or Galleries, there is something here for absolutely everybody! Use the search feature to zero in on what you want. (See tips section below)

The British Library
1,000,000+ Photos
A gloriously eclectic mix of images. Just one example: World War I: The Canadian Experience. This photo album covers 1895 and 1924, and contain depictions of Canadians’ experiences of the First World War. From the British Library: “Either produced by photographers on home soil or individuals in Europe employed by Lord Beaverbrook’s ‘Canadian War Records Office’ the photographs provide a wide ranging account of the many Canadians involved in and impacted by the war.”

The National Archives UK
20,000+ Photos
the UK government’s official archive contains more than 1,000 years of history, so their photostream is not to be missed! Nicely organized into Albums focused on location, the images offer a sampling of their massive holdings.

The U.S. National Archives
16,500+ Photos
Nicely organized into a vast array of albums, these photos represent only a small sampling of the photographs in their collection which totals more than 25 million photos and 20,000 graphic images. Early on they focused on uploading photos from the Women’s Bureau, the Environmental Protection Agency, and a few staff favorites. According to the National Archives, “These photographs, most taken by agents of Federal agencies over the years, cover a wide range of subjects and themes documented in the work of the United States government. Higher resolution versions of many of these images can be obtained from the U.S. National Archives by following the links located below each image.”

SMU Libraries Digital Collections
10,000+ Photos
Southern Methodist University Digital Collections includes the digital libraries and online digital collections from the six SMU Libraries. You’ll find an emphasis on digital collections of Mexican photographs, locomotives, Texas history, art, and currency notes, and more.

National Library of Norway
3600+ Photos
These images either fall in the public domain or the copyright belongs to the library and has been wavered. You’ll find photos, postcards, stereograph cards and other ephemera depicting life in Norway. With all of the portraits you may just spot an ancestor!

National Library of Norway photostream

National Library of Norway photostream

The New York Public Library
2500+ Photos
Considering how many Americans passed through New York, this photostream is definitely worth a visit.

National Library of Ireland on The Commons
2500+ Photos
Here you’ll find a range of items from the Ephemera Collections of the National Library of Ireland. They provide a snapshot of different periods in Ireland’s social, political, economic and cultural history. They’ve also added items from their Manuscript collections, Prints and Drawings, Exhibitions, as well as photos from Library Events.

UBC Library Digitization Centre
of the University of British Columbia
2400+ Photos
Just one of many Canadian library photostreams, the UBC Library shows off it’s diverse image collection in well organized albums. My personal odd-ball favorite is the Tremaine Arkley Croquet Collection!

Library Company of Philadelphia
1280+ Photos
They’ve organized their current photo collection into more than 50 albums, making it easy to quickly spot the historical collections. Notable albums feature unique historical images from the Civil War era.

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David Rumsey Shares Souvenir Map for Early Airline Passengers

A recent blog post at slate.com caught my eye because it features a map from the genealogists-love-it David Rumsey map collection. But what captured my attention was the story the unfolded behind the foldable map itself. I think you’ll love it!

Blogger Rebecca Onion uses a 1929 souvenir map of the United States to tell the story of early commercial air traffic–specifically the story of the origins

Rumsey TAT map

Rumsey TAT map

of airline giant TWA. Apparently early “transcontinental flights,” as they were advertised, were sight-seeing tours with short flights interspersed by train rides to the next flight location. The map featured in her blog post was a souvenir of one of these passengers, who added his own colorful comments on his experience.

This fun post is part aviation history, part map-lover trivia. The story unfolds even more in a short video documentary on Transcontinental Air Transport I’ve added below. It includes cool aerial shots and more on how the early air transport industry, er, got off the ground.

And don’t forget to use maps (storied or just the plain informational types) in your family history research! These can help you find your way around ancestral hometowns, chart migration routes as they would have and otherwise see the world (literally) in the same ways they did.  David Rumsey’s map collection is one of the best online collections out there, with free access to over 44,000 high-resolution historical maps.

Learn more about how to use the David Rumsey historic map collection in conjunction with Google Earth by watching my free video class Google Earth for Genealogy.

My Genealogist’s Google Toolbox Kit, is a value bundle that includes my book The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox and Volumes I and II of Google Earth for Genealogy (on video CD). And right now the kit is available for 20% off!

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