How 75-Year Old WPA Records May Help You Find an Ancestor

WPA Church Record Inventory Sheet, Eliam Baptist Church, FL. Click to view.

WPA Church Record Inventory Sheet, Eliam Baptist Church, FL. Click to view.

Got a research brick wall? A “national temp agency” created resources that may help you find your family history in obscure historical records.

During the Great Depression, so many Americans were out of work that the federal government launched the Works Progress Administration (later renamed the Works Projects Administration, thankfully keeping the “WPA” acronym intact).

I think of the WPA as a national temp agency that put thousands of residents to work on bookkeeping, building and conservation projects around the country. It’s the same concept I use when my kids want to earn some spending money: I give them a list of back-burnered chores: weed the flower beds, inventory the pantry, wash the walls.

The federal government did this on an enormous scale. Their “inventory the pantry” chores included jobs like indexing immigration and naturalization records and inventorying extant church records. Do you see where I’m going with this?

Let’s use the church records inventories as an example. In several states, WPA workers used a standardized form to capture data about church congregations. Included were:

  • the church name(s) and address, pastor name, details about the building(s), race and size of congregation;
  • a brief history of the church; and–even better–
  • the description and location of existing records, like minute books, financial records, and registers of baptisms, marriages, members and deaths.

The original inventories, where they still exist, have been scattered. They were not collected and maintained by any national agency. But some were published and some are now online. For example:

Church records inventories are just one type of helpful resource compiled by WPA workers. Learn more about WPA records from leading genealogical expert Paula Stuart-Warren in Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast episode 2. (A Premium membership required to access–and it’s totally worth it! Click here to learn about its many benefits.)

3 Sources for Historic Maps that May Surprise You

Old maps are an essential tool for discovering more about your family’s history. If you have exhausted more traditional sources, here are three places to find maps that may surprise you.

#1 Surprising Finds within the David Rumsey Map Collection

www.davidrumsey.com

You’re probably aware that the David Rumsey map collection website is a terrific source for old maps. But you may be surprised by the variety of maps, some which you likely don’t come across every day. Here’s a fun little tactic I took today to see what it may hold in store beyond typical maps. A search of the word neighborhood reveals that their holdings go well beyond traditional maps. Here’s an example from San Francisco showing a neighborhood in its infancy:
google earth maps for genealogy

And the image below depicts the Country Club district of Kansas City in the 1930s. If your family lived there at that time, this is a real gem.

Google earth for genealogy maps

#2 Google Books

www.books.google.com

If you think Google Books is just books, think again. Historic maps, often unique and very specific, can often be found within those digitized pages. Try running a Google search such as: neighborhood map baltimore. 

Click the MORE menu and select BOOKS. Then click the SEARCH TOOLS button at the top of the results list, and from the drop down menu select ANY BOOKS and then click FREE GOOGLE BOOKS:

baltimore search

Select a book that looks promising. Then rather than reading through the pages or scanning the index, save loads of time by clicking the thumbnail view button at the top of the book. This way you can do a quick visual scan for pages featuring maps!

baltimore history

When you find a page featuring a map, click it display it on a single page. You can now use the clipper tool built right in to Google Books to clip an image of the map. Other options include using Evernote (free) or Snagit ($).

Google Image search for maps google books

#3 Old Newspapers at Chronicling America

http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/

Like Google Books, the digitized pages housed at the Chronicling America website contain much more than just text. Old newspapers printed maps to help readers understand current events like the progress of war or the effect of a natural disaster. This map from The Tacoma Times in 1914 shows a map of Europe and several quick facts about the “Great War,” World War I:

The Tacoma Times, August 22, 1914. Image from Chronicling America. Click on image to visit webpage.

The Tacoma Times, August 22, 1914. Image from Chronicling America. Click on image to visit webpage.

Here’s one more example below. A search for “San Francisco earthquake” at Chronicling America brought up this bird’s eye view of San Francisco at the time of the major 1906 earthquake. Articles below the map explain what you’re seeing:

The Minneapolis Journal, April 19, 1906. Image at Chronicling America; click on image to see it there.

The Minneapolis Journal, April 19, 1906. Image at Chronicling America; click on image to see it there.

Learn more about using newspapers to understand your ancestors’ lives in my book, How to Find Your Family History in Newspapers. 

Want more inspiring ideas for finding historic maps? Below is my FREE 8-minute video on using Sanborn maps. This is an excerpt from my Genealogy Gems Premium video, “5 Ways to Enhance Your Genealogy Research with Old Maps.” (Premium membership required to watch that full video along with others like “Best Websites for Finding Historical Maps.”)

Genealogy Websites: #1 – 4 of our 25 Websites for Genealogy!

VIDEO & SHOW NOTES: In this video, my guest presenter Gena Philibert-Ortega covers 4 of the biggest genealogy websites that are must-have for family history research. This is a great chance for you to discover some new online tools as well as refresh your memory about terrific sites that may have fallen off your radar. This video is part of a 5 part series totaling 25 essential websites for genealogy. 

Websites 1 through 4 of Gena’s 25  Websites for Genealogy

I’m Gina Philibert Ortega, and welcome to 25 Websites for Genealogy, What I’d like to do is talk to you about websites that are must-haves for your genealogical research. 

Some of these websites will be new to you, and others are going to be very familiar to you. In talking about the familiar websites, I want to get you thinking about them differently, explain a little bit more about what you can do at these websites, and how to get the most out of them.

In this series of 25 Websites for Genealogy, we’re going to be looking at websites in different categories. Our first category is the big genealogy websites (#1 through 4). So let’s go ahead and get started!

Download the ad-free Show Notes cheat sheet for this video here. (Premium Membership required.)

Websites #1: FamilySearch

https://www.familysearch.org

The number one website for me is always Family Search. Why is it number one? Well, first of all, Family Search is free. And it’s always nice to find free stuff, right? We want to exhaust what’s free, and what’s available, before we spend money or travel or do anything like that. So for me, the first place you should always go is Family Search.

Learn more: Deep Dive FamilySearch Wiki!

 

Website #2: Ancestry

https://www.ancestry.com

as of the time of this video, Ancestry had 33,000 databases that can help you in your genealogy research! Remember to move beyond the search engine and dig into that Card Catalogue to find all the available gems. 

Learn more about using Ancestry effectively with our videos:

 

Website #3: Findmypast

https://www.findmypast.com

Even though Findmypast is based in England and is heavily focused on British research, you don’t have to have British ancestors to find it useful. It has records from the United States and other countries as well. If you haven’t been using Findmypast, I suggest you go on the website and sign up for a free account. This will allow you to see what they have. You can also go to a FamilySearch center near you and possibly use it for free as many of these genealogy websites have library editions.

You may remember that find Findmypast has PERSI, the periodical source index. Although no longer have PERSI, you can find it at the Allen County Public Library’s Genealogy Center website. Check out our videos below to learn more about using PERSI at the Genealogy Center, and a terrific photo collection at Findmypast. 

Learn more about using Findmypast effectively with our videos:

 

#4: MyHeritage

https://www.myheritage.com 

Like Ancestry and Findmypast, MyHeritage also provides a platform for building your family tree, and has a card catalog called the Collection Catalog featuring over 7000 collections. You can even order a DNA test or upload results from other companies. Use the filters to filter collection, and then by location.

Learn more with our video about 10 of the best features at MyHeritage:

MyHeritage 10 “Don’t Miss” Features You Need

Resources:

Download the ad-free Show Notes cheat sheet for this video here. (Premium Membership required.)

Not a Premium Member yet? Discover the benefits and join today. 

We Dig These Gems! New Genealogy Records Online

Here’s our weekly list of new genealogy records online. It’s PACKED with European military records from WWII back to the War of 1812. Do any collections below relate to your family history? Please share with your genealogy buddies or with societies that might be interested!

BRITISH POWs IN JAPAN. Over 56,000 records pertaining to the 37,583 British and Commonwealth soldiers released from Japanese captivity in 1945 are now available on Forces War Records. ‘This collection…lists the soldiers, along with the occasional civilian, who endured these conditions. Prisoners were only obliged to provide their name, rank and number so the amount of military information is limited, however the records do include the date of capture, the camp in which they were held and the date of liberation, be that through release, escape or death.”

BRITISH JEWS IN WWI. Findmypast’s new British Jewry Book of Honour 1914-1920 “contains nearly 57,000 color images and transcripts of [an original] two-volume book published in 1922 to record and honor” contributions of more than 50,000 Jews to the British and colonial forces during World War I. “It describes Jewish enlistment, casualties, military honors, Jewish units and the work of Jewish hospitals and other Jewish institutions and agencies. Importantly, it contains alphabetical lists of those killed in action, those who were awarded military honors and the nominal rolls of Jews who served, listed by service and by regiment.”

BRITISH WAR OF 1812. The British Army Casualty Index War of 1812 now at Findmypast “contains the details of over 12,000 soldiers in the British Army who died, deserted, or were imprisoned during the War of 1812 (or the Anglo American War)….Each record consists of a transcript of the original source material that will reveal the soldiers name, birth place, former occupation, rank, regiment or unit, place or action, company officer, company number, removal date and manner of removal – this may include information on how a soldier died or whether he deserted or was a prisoner of war.”

SCOTTISH CHURCH RECORDS. A new Findmypast collection, Scottish Covenanters 1679-1688 contains over 81,000 records of The Covenanters, a “Scottish Presbyterian movement that played an important part in the history of Scotland, England and Ireland, during the 17th century….The records list the individuals who signed the Covenant…[and] a transcript created using sources held by The National Archives and the National Library of Scotland…[with] the Covenanter’s name, county, a description (often their occupation or relatives) and place.”

WWII in EUROPE. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission has launched a new online database of British, Irish, and Commonwealth WWII casualties. It will now be possible for the first time “to see the original records of all 1.7 million individuals the Commission commemorates.” According to a press release, “The digitized records cover British, Irish and Commonwealth casualties from the Second World War, together with records for most other nationals commemorated at CWGC sites: this includes the records for German soldiers.”

We love seeing all these new genealogy records online every week! The trick is to get the word out about them. Will you help us by sharing this post with others?

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