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.
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.
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.
When I started podcasting back in early 2007, it was still sort of the Wild West of podcasting. The medium had only been invented and gone public in 2005. It has been exciting to be part of a new frontier of sound and to reach people around the world interested in genealogy through mp3 files online. And the podcast has been far reaching, having recently celebrated 1,000,000 downloads!
Back in 1878 Thomas Edison was experiencing the first “Wild West” of sound when he created the first recording of the human voice with his phonograph invention. Today, historians are working diligently to meticulously capture and preserve those earliest recordings.
Gretna Green is a term you need to know if you are searching for marriage records. In this video professional genealogist J. Mark Lowe joins me to discuss Gretna Green: what it means, why it matters, and how Gretna Greens may have affected your ability to find your ancestors’ marriage records.
This is part 1 of a 2 part series with Mark Lowe on marriage records. Next week, Mark will walk us through a case study for finding marriage records relating to a Gretna Green in the United States.
Mark: I’m getting old enough now that I could forget some of that. I really started realistically started when I was about seven years old. Not doing the same kind of work, not professionally, that sort of thing. But I got interested.
Lisa: We have so much in common. And I think one of the biggest things, of course, is genealogy. And I think most folks watching probably have seen you at some point, tell everybody how long you’ve been doing genealogy. When did all this start for you?
I lost my paternal grandmother. And so, with her loss, there were questions that I needed answers to. And I would ask my dad, and he knew lots of stuff. But he didn’t know everything I wanted to know, including, where everybody was married or that sort of thing. And I had an interest in that. He took me to an aunt, I had a couple of aunts who were in the DAR and there were interested a little bit, and he took me to visit one of those who took me to the county court clerk’s office up in Bowling Green, Kentucky.
Mr. Oval Motley was the clerk at that point. He was willing to work with a seven-year-old. He took me into the bowels of the courthouse and let me unfold marriage records and he made me explain to him, and he would ask “now do you understand this?” He and I transcribed – remember those great big pencils that we used in first and second grade, those great big ones the size of your thumb? – he had me transcribe whatever I was looking at, and then I would tell him what it meant. Or if I didn’t know, he would explain it to me. Now, I still had a seven-year-old mind, and I was loving it! I was learning it. And he said to me, “Do you see where the story goes?” And he said, “the story of your family and every other family who passed through this area are in these records.” And he said, “so if you learn how to listen to that story, you can hear what happened to them then.” I was hooked!
Lisa: I can imagine. What a great experience! How wonderful that he spoke to a seven-year-old like that and didn’t underestimate your interest or your capability.
You’ve got me beat by a year because I think I was eight years old when I first became interested in family history. I always tell people I was the only kid in grade school using her allowance to buy death certificates! But my grandmother hadn’t passed. But like the gentleman that you met at the courthouse when I asked her during a visit over the summer vacation, “Who are these people in your in your scrapbooks? I don’t recognize them. Why do you have strangers? You’re my grandma!” and she said, “that’s my family!” She stopped everything and sat down with me and answered questions and wrote things down. It’s that love and attention of an adult who’s willing to talk to you about it, right? I mean, what a difference that makes our kid!
Mark: It really doesn’t. In fact, my grandmother, when she was living, was someone who would give you attention. I would make up homework because I was not yet in school when she would come and stay with us. She would help my older brothers and sisters with homework. And so, I would say “you know, Mama Lowe I have homework too!” And she would do what you say and we would go through something, whatever I made up to go through, and I think that was why there was such a loss in part of that. And so, I think doing the research often about her family, those folks that I’d heard her talk about, helped me feel like she was there again. Telling me those stories.
Lisa: Yes. You get to uncover another connection, and another connection, and another connection to those beloved relatives that we knew. I still feel that way. When I find people I say to my Grandma, “I got one!” It’s exciting to know that we have that ongoing connection.
So, you called her mama Lowe?
Mark: Mama Lowe, yes. She was my dad’s mom. And my other grandmother was just Granny.
What Does Gretna Green Mean?
(06:29) Lisa: Let’s talk about marriage records. I know that you teach a lot on this subject and kind of blend it in with this concept of Gretna Green. I’ve heard of Gretna Green. There’s a place in Scotland. But you really help explain to people how this applies even to those of us in the US, and other countries. Let’s start off with talking about Gretna Green as a real place, and as an idea.
Mark: Exactly. There really is a place called Gretna Green. And as you mentioned, it is in Scotland. And the reason that it became famous is that England’s marriage laws were more rigid. Many couples found out that they could just cross the border over into Scotland, and they could get married much quicker, much easier without the same restrictions. It became so well known as people shared it with one another then they went to this little community called Gretna Green.
The marriage registers for those are available. So, if you actually have family who went to the Gretna Green in Scotland, the records are a database that’s available, both on FamilySearch and Ancestry. You can search those.
It became famous for an anvil, like a blacksmith anvil there. Often the story would go that they would go there to say they wanted to get married. The smithy was kind of a central place in the community. (Image Source: New Britain herald. [microfilm reel], July 10, 1924, Image 10.)
(Image Source: New Britain herald. [microfilm reel], July 10, 1924, Image 10.)
It was just a place that was close to get to, was not far away, where folks could just cross the border, go to Gretna Green. They would get married at that location, and then return home. It became kind of synonymous with the idea of going somewhere else to get married.
As we know, in the States, there’s been lots of “famous” areas where people wanted to get married, not always just because of marriage laws. Like often that would be going to Niagara Falls. A lot of folks went to Niagara Falls either on their honeymoon, or in many days earlier to get married It became a destination. And so, the Gretna Greens are not those necessarily romantic locations, but where perhaps the laws were easier. In fact, let’s look at some of those reasons.
Reasons Why People Married at a “Gretna Green”
(09:54) I think the biggest reason that many of our ancestors married somewhere besides where they lived was because of age requirements. That still applies today. That was the case in the first one I went to find in my family. There was a courthouse where I thought they would have gotten married. That’s where they lived. But there was no marriage record from my grandparents there. There could have been age requirements.
In some states, there’s a waiting period. So even though we could go get a license, it might be two, three, sometimes five days, sometimes a week, before the couple could actually get married. And for many folks, that was just too long.
Medical Test Requirements
In the 20th century in particular we began to add some medical test requirements for marriage. And in many states today, there still is a blood test or various requirements, and that delays the marriage. Even today, in this county, several years ago, Tennessee required a blood test, and there was a lab that was set up just across from the courthouse where you could get your blood test done in one day. And so, we became kind of a Gretna Green for even other counties, because you could come here and
get your blood test and get married in the same day. That wasn’t true in other places. So that’s another reason.
Sometimes it’s the cost of the license, or specific restrictions to clauses. Sometimes, besides age, there would be where you would have to have the proof of good conduct. Somebody had to actually, in some states, say that they knew you and that you would stand up for a good marriage and that you were of good conduct and that sort of thing. And in some cases, that would have prevented folks from going to a particular area.
Alcohol and Party Restrictions
Certainly, near state lines and that sort of thing, people would want to have a party at their wedding. Perhaps they lived in a dry county. I grew up in a dry county. If you wanted to have alcohol or a party, then you would go somewhere else to get married.
For many folks going away is an important situation. They might hop on the train, or certainly, the whole idea of ‘oh, we want to get married somewhere special’, they would do that. So, I mentioned Niagara Falls. One of the other big areas where people went, if it was a destination wedding was Mammoth Cave. They wanted to go down in the cave. And particularly after the Civil War, 1870s and 1880s, there were many folks who would come down to Kentucky to do that. They would have on a fancy dress, but they would cover it with some kind of coveralls so they could crawl into the cave. Then they would get married and try to take some pictures. And so that would be a reason.
Lisa: It sounds like something kind of becomes a Gretna Green when word gets out that there’s an advantage to going there versus going here. I think about all the old movies in which they would go to Reno to get a divorce. That’s kind of the opposite Gretna Green, isn’t it?
Mark: It is, but it’s the same. It’s exactly the same thing. Same concept. People would get excited and would tell the information. So yes, yes, you can go there and a get a divorce quickly – same thing. And it’s amazing how the word got out about certain squires or JPs (Justice of the Peace). If you watched Andy Griffith growing up, people would come to him as the JP and get married.
Researchers like you and I, we’ve looked at these records, and we think “Wait, the record would have to be created in that place. And in some areas, it was he ease at which a JP could create a license where you didn’t have to go to the county seat. You could get married in that area with that JP. You could do everything right there. That certainly would have sped up the situation of having to go to a big city and wait in the long line and wait to be seen and go through the information. That’s certainly the reasons that they existed. and still exist today. They still do exist.
Lisa: Well, I imagine if a town or a city wanted to encourage people to come and kind of bring their filing fees with them, they would create a scenario where it’s really easy and they get that word out.
Mark: Sounds like a tourism opportunity! Yeah, come and get married here! We’ll make it work.
By the way, if you go look for that, you’re going to find that that exists, certainly. There are wedding chapels around the corner in certain cities just waiting for the opportunity.
Understanding Context: Marriage Statistics
(15:07) My grandparents would have gotten married right after World War I. I could see that they were married. But depending on the time period and where you are, if you’re in the States, there are records of agencies, around the world in virtually every country. For example, a book of marriage statistics. There’s one compiled by the Bureau of the Census. We’re used to looking at their populations counts and that sort of thing. But they also put out a marriage and divorce report, probably starting in the 1860s and continuing through today, actually. They are available on Google Books.
I’ve used the marriage statistics report. They don’t always have the marriage statistics report in every annual report. They’re also available on Hathitrust. This is the 1922 Report: Marriage and Divorce, Bureau of Census.
In it you can see counties where the marriage rate is higher than the state marriage rate. So, for example, if you were looking at West Virginia, Brooke County has a marriage rate higher than every other county in West Virginia. The next thing to do is pull a map up of that time period. If you look at Brook County, West Virginia it has that little lip that fits up between Ohio, and Pennsylvania. So, Brooke county is in West Virginia, and lays right between Ohio to its west, and Pennsylvania to the east. Ohio’s laws in Pennsylvania laws were more stringent than West Virginia’s law. So, Brooke County, was a popular destination. Number one, it’s close. And so many couples from Pennsylvania and Ohio, and sometimes folks who married somebody from Ohio, would meet in West Virginia, and have the marriage.
This statistical data kind of helps you predict an idea. If you have somebody and you can’t find their marriage record, you could start looking at the law in that time period and see which counties had a higher rate nearby.
I think that the next step is to take that one step further. Besides the statistics, try to figure out what was the cause. Hathitrust has lot of years listed of the Bureau of the Census Special Reports Marriage and Divorce. You can actually look based on the time period that you’re looking for.
If you’re interested in the laws for other countries, they’re often included in some of this book of the US Census, because it’s showing us what’s the comparable laws in France or Germany or Spain. They’re in the same book. So, you don’t have to go look necessarily outside. Sometimes you can actually use the same tools for that. So let me give an example.
In the 1909 edition I pulled up the requirements for Kentucky and Tennessee. When I’m looking at my grandparents who were living in Kentucky, I wonder why would they possibly go somewhere else to get married? This is the age before a parental consent is required. In Kentucky, you had to be 21. In Tennessee at that point, you only had to be 16. That’s five years, a significant difference right there, don’t you think? You can imagine that there would have been a lot of people who thought, wait a minute, we’re eighteen, and we want to get married. We’ve got to have parental consent? If that were the case, if your parents were all for that situation, then you could still do that. But if there was some question, then in Tennessee that wasn’t required at 16. In fact, before 1899 it mentions that that was put into place, that you had to be 16. Before that there wasn’t a specific written consent age. So that could have been the situation.
Those of us who research in Kentucky, for example, we understand the process that people who lived in the northern part of Kentucky crossed over to Indiana, because there was the lower age there. And the folks on the southern border, which is Tennessee, they crossed over into the northern Tennessee counties and got married, because it would have been easier.
With that in mind, you want to look at the laws that are in place. One of my favorite places to do that to quickly looking up the laws and statutes for the various states is one of the great summaries. Cornell law school has Marriage Laws of the Fifty States.
They’ve got it by state, and it helps you see the changes over time. It will tell you what the current marriage law is, but it will also help you see the changes in the past decades. I think that’s helpful for us to know. What was the law in place when your great aunt and uncle got married, and you’re trying to find where they were married? So that’s a great tool.
You specialize in your professional research, but many people who do it as a hobby don’t necessarily specialize. The advantage in specializing as a professional genealogist is that you really get to know all that context of an area. But that’s a strategy that all of us can use. We don’t have to be doing client work to take the time to get these kinds of resources. This is brilliant.
Mark: Yeah, because that is the question sometimes. I think that’s the one area that we can help sometimes is that people will say, “where do you where do you find that?” Well, it’s because you’ve already found it before. I think it’s when we share “hey, wait, this is a resource I would use” wherever I was. And I think I shared kind of three places there that would help you quickly, without getting into anything complicated.
And by the way, it would mention in the Census Bureau summary of laws, it would mention, if it required blood tests at a certain time period, what the tests were, it would indicate if there were special bonds. So, in regard to all those other reasons that folks might have gone to another location, those are in some of these summaries. So it’s not just an age thing. It’s got lots of other reasons. So again, it helps to know where to look, absolutely.
More Reasons to Go Looking for a Gretna Green Marriage
(23:45) In the case of my grandparents, I couldn’t ask her at that point, you know “where did y’all get married?” But sometimes there are clues that will cause you to look for a Gretna Green marriage.
I did look in the newspaper, but it just indicated their marriage. It did not indicate where they went to get married. I did find that in some other folks that I’ve looked for. In the newspaper account, it indicated that they went to a certain place or perhaps it was solemnized with the justice of the peace. Maybe the name was included. So, I would always do those newspaper searches.
Another reason to look for a Gretna Green marriage is rumors. They are often the best possibility. Somebody might say, “I think they ran off to so-and-so”. Occasionally that does pan out that people went pretty far to get married.
I always want to make sure that I’m looking in the right county. I love using the tool called the Atlas of Historical County Boundaries at the Newberry Library in Chicago. If I had grandparents who married in 1860 in a certain county, I want to know what the county boundary was at that time because maybe the current county didn’t exist yet. Maybe they were living in a different county at that time, and that’s where the marriage is. So, it’s always wise to make sure we’re looking at the same information and consistent across time.
The atlas of historical county boundaries
Learn more about the Atlas of Historical County Boundaries in these two articles:
Lisa: I know that a lot of beginners in genealogy don’t always realize that you don’t always go to the current county seat for genealogy records. That what you were just showing there with that Atlas of Historical County Boundaries interactive map was the ability to be able to pick a point in time and see where the boundaries were at that time, because that’s where you would then search today. And it’s one of those things that until somebody tells you, you don’t really know when you’re new in genealogy. That’s a great tool.
Case Study: Finding Records for a Gretna Green Marriage
This is part 1 of a 2-part series with Mark Lowe on marriage records. Next time, Mark will walk us through a case study for finding marriage records relating to a Gretna Green in the United States.