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.

PERSI for Genealogy: the Periodical Source Index

PERSI for Genealogy Periodical Source Citation Index

Have you met PERSI? You should! PERSI is the Periodical Source Index. Use PERSI for genealogy and you may discover your ancestors in thousands of articles you never knew existed. 

You may have heard me talk in the past about PERSI. In case you haven’t…PERSI is not a person—it’s the acronym for the Periodical Source Index. PERSI is THE master index for periodicals with over 2.7 million entries. Thousands of magazines, newsletters, journals, and other periodicals from the U.S., Canada, Britain, Ireland, and Australia are indexed here.

PERSI is maintained by the Allen County Public Library’s Genealogy Center in Fort Wayne, Indiana. They have the equivalent of 6 full-time staff who are dedicated to subject-indexing every issue of every known genealogy or historical periodical and even the tiniest society newsletter.

Curt Witcher, who runs the Genealogy Center at Allen County and who has been a guest on the podcast in the past, estimates that if you don’t consult periodicals in your research, you could be missing up to 30% of your research leads! That’s a lot of leads! PERSI has long been a staple resource for advanced and professional genealogists to help them break through brick walls. With its help, you can much more quickly locate articles like biographical sketches of ancestors (or people they knew), transcribed indexes to naturalization or probate records, church records, school records, and the like. There might be just-what-you-need histories of places or the organizations your ancestors belonged to.

These key articles are often buried so deep in back issues of little local genealogy newsletters that you may never come across them on your own. Sometimes, they’re what we call “orphaned” content: articles we’d find in totally unexpected places.

HOW TO SEARCH PERSI ONLINE

PERSI used to be searchable on Ancestry, but it isn’t there anymore. The current version of PERSI is exclusively on Findmypast and they’re doing something really cool with it: they are gradually adding digitized articles to the index! They are doing this by signing contracts with each individual society or journal publisher, so it’s not a fast process. The vast majority of entries on PERSI do not have digitized articles linked to them yet. It’s a bonus when you do find them.

To search PERSI at Findmypast you do not actually need a subscription. They allow anyone to search and see the list of results. To see details about specific search results (including any digitized images), you will need a subscription OR you will need to purchase their pay-per-view credits. Findmypast does offer a 14-day free trial. You can also use Findmypast at Family History Centers and at many libraries that have institutional subscriptions.

Once you have located an article, it’s inexpensive to order a copy directly from the Allen County Public Library Genealogy Center. Simply download the order form PDF from their website, fill it out, and mail it in. Last we checked, you can request up to six articles for only $7.50, which you pre-pay and then they bill you separately for copies at 20 cents per page.

Sometime soon, why not take 15 minutes—or your next lunch break at work–and search PERSI for your top surnames and locations? Again, the database is PERSI, it is at Findmypast, and the chance to discover is all yours.

MORE GEMS ON PERSI

PERSI Digitized Collections Gaining GroundGenealogy Gems - Family History Podcast and Website

New FindMyPast Hints Help Find Records

The Genealogy Gems Podcast Premium Episode 135: Comparsion of Google Scholar & PERSI (Premium Member Subscription Needed)

 

Find Your Family History at ScotlandsPeople: New Look and Free Content

 

ScotlandsPeople has a new look and more free features. Here’s what the makeover involves, and how customers of the former host Findmypast.com are affected.

scotlandspeople genealogyRecently, ScotlandsPeople gained a new site host, after finishing its previous contract with Findmypast.com. ScotlandsPeople is the official Scottish government website for searching government records and archives.

Hundreds of thousands of people use it each year to research their family histories and access documents such as censuses, statutory and parish vital records, valuation rolls, wills and other critical historical records.

New on ScotlandsPeople

ScotlandsPeople has undergone its most extensive overhaul since 2010. It recently relaunched with several new features, including free content and services. Here’s a summary list taken from an article on the site:

  • You can now search indexes to records, including statutory records of births, deaths and marriages, free of charge for the first time. (You will be charged when you view or download a record image.)
  • The improved site design allows you access across digital devices.
  • An enhanced search function makes it easier to locate and view records.
  • New features include a quick search for people (across all records indexed by name) or the advanced search for specific types of records.scotlandspeople-search-interface
  • You can now link to the Register of Corrected Entries from the relevant entry in a statutory register free of charge.
  • Transcriptions of the 1881 census can now be read without charge.
  • Indexes to births, marriages and death for 2015 and early 2016 have been added.
  • You can now search coats of arms up to 1916.
  • There are now more than 150,000 baptism entries from Scottish Presbyterian churches other than the Old Parish Registers of the Church of Scotland. More will be added in the near future, including marriages and burials.
  • Over the next few months, more records will be added from the National Records of Scotland, including records of kirk sessions and other church courts.

Effect on Findmypast.com users

So, how did this transition affect Findmypast.com subscribers? Did they lose any access to Scottish records? No, says company rep Jim Shaughnessy: “Nothing is changing from a Findmypast perspective. Because of how Scottish records work, we didn’t have a reciprocal arrangement with ScotlandsPeople; our users didn’t get access to their records. We’ll continue to have the extensive Scottish records we already have, our users aren’t going to lose anything at all.”

findmypast-scottish-portalFindmypast.com has Scotland’s census for 1841-1901, indexes to births, baptisms and marriages back to the 1560s, and some other collections. Click here to search Scottish records on Findmypast.com.

 

Pin It on Pinterest

MENU