The 1950 census must be indexed so that we can search for relatives by name, location and much, much more. You can help with this exciting project, and no special skills or background are required. Jim Ericson of FamilySearch 1950 Census Community Project explains what’s happening and how you can get involved.
Lisa: The 1950 US federal census was released by the National Archives just a short time ago on April 1 2022. But it was just a release of the digitized images of the census pages. The indexing of those records happens afterwards. It’s really the indexing that makes it possible for all of us to be able to search the records and find our families. Here to tell us about that really important indexing project. To get all this done is Jim Ericson from FamilySearch. They are heading up this project. Welcome, Jim.
Jim: Thank you, Lisa. It’s wonderful to be here with you today.
Lisa: I know you guys are so busy. You’re right on the heels of Rootstech which just wrapped up. And now we’re here with the release of the US Federal Census for 1950! Do you have somebody you’re looking forward to seeing in that census record?
Jim: Yeah, both of my parents will be there. My dad will be 20 years old. He turned 21 that year after the census. And my mom is 15, she will just have had her 15th birthday.
I know where my mom was. She was in Salt Lake City. But I have no idea where my dad was in 1950 as a 20 year old. He’d left college and I know that he had enlisted in the in the army. But I don’t know. He also worked in San Francisco for a couple of years. I don’t know if he’ll be in San Francisco, or where exactly where he would have been in 1950 when the census was taken so there’s a little mystery right there.
Lisa: Absolutely, and that’s a perfect example of why the indexing is so important, because you’ll be able to name search for him when this is done.
The History of FamilySearch
Before we jump into that indexing project, for those who maybe aren’t familiar or haven’t used FamilySearch, tell us what familysearch.org does and what it offers the genealogist.
Jim: FamilySearch is a nonprofit organization. We were founded in 1894 as the Genealogical Society of Utah.
FamilySearch is more of a recent incarnation of the organization that kind of reflects when we went online, and when we started publishing CD ROMs in the 1990s.
We’ve been microfilming and digitizing records since 1938. We started a worldwide project to go and collect records from around the world. Microfilm was really the innovation that allowed us to store all those records in a library. Getting a whole bunch of books or physical records in one location was difficult.
Since then, all of our record operations are now digital. All of our records are captured digitally now. We have worldwide operations in hundreds of countries. We publish over about a billion records a year.
As a nonprofit, we partner with commercial entities who have an interest in profit, because we know that they know how to innovate. And that also helps our resources go further through partnerships with these commercial entities. The 1950 census is actually an example of that sort of a partnership. We’re working on this with Ancestry and using the resources that they have.
FamilySearch has a collaborative family tree where you can see what others know about your family. We have, like I mentioned, 10 billion records that are online. We have free resources to learn how to do family history. And we really try to just bring people wherever they are, to the experiences that can help them learn about their family.
(04:32) Lisa: It’s amazing how much it’s grown! I remember the days of the CD ROMs with the record sets that we used to order. And now so much is available for free from home. Users just need to sign up for a free account to use the website and take advantage of the records. And I love the Wiki. It’s such a wonderful treasure trove of knowledge when it comes to genealogy research
Let’s talk about the most exciting and the newest record collection, which is the 1950 census. When it was released by the National Archives did you get all the images? Does that mean instantaneous publication on familysearch.org? How did that work initially?
Jim: Well, 10 years ago, in 2012, when they released the 1940 census, we were actually waiting at the National Archives with a van and hard drives. We had to transfer all the data onto hard drives and take them to our data facility in Virginia.
This time, everything was available online. Everything was downloaded and uploaded to our servers immediately. There was high demand. So that was one of the challenges that we faced was making sure that we’re going to be able to download those images, over 6 million images is a lot of images to be able to download. And those images include records for 151 million people. So that’s a lot of information at high quality, resolution. So that was actually the first hurdle.
And since we are doing this project with Ancestry, we also have to wait for Ancestry to do the same thing and download the images, to be able to process them to create their computerized index with their own handwriting recognition technology that then comes to us. It makes it so much easier to review an index as opposed to starting with transcription from scratch. So, there are so many innovations that have taken place. But from the National Archives, the online delivery of images was one of those innovations.
Lisa: How fantastic to be able to do that online. I can imagine that speeding it up. And then you’ve got artificial intelligence, which is already impacting how we use genealogy websites, how we access digitized books, and here you are using it to help index the records.
I’d love to know kind of a comparison between the speed at which you indexed the 1940 census which I thought was pretty darn quick to how that looks for 1950.
Jim: There is a great question, and we’re still learning how this is going to play out with the 1950 census.
The history of census indexing by FamilySearch
One of the first projects that we did as FamilySearch when we were publishing, CD ROMs was the 1880 census. The 1880 census took us more than a decade to press on to CD ROM. It was a huge project! It was crowd sourced, but before the advent of the internet. It was sending packets and physical papers around and then gathering them and then creating a CD ROM.
We went from a project like that, to doing the 1940 census just over a decade later in a matter of about six months. So already the technology was just astounding because of what you’re able to do because of the internet. Now you have the artificial intelligence, the handwriting, character recognition, and then you have innovations that we’re doing with the crowdsourcing. And all of a sudden, you’re able to take those tasks that we’re all human, I guess bounded by human capabilities, and you’re now allowing the computer to do what the computer can do.
With the 1950 census, we are actually indexing or reviewing this automated index for every single field that was captured in the 1950 census. It’s way more data than we were dealing with for the 1940 census. Because of the cost and the time, we just wanted to make sure that we just had the most logically relevant fields captured, so occupation, and some of those fields were seen as extra fields. But for 1950, we recognize that we can do a lot more in terms of the experiences that we can provide and that these other entities can provide if we have a full index, so that’s one of the big innovations. It’s going really well.
When will the 1950 census index be complete?
We have a goal to get it all done by Flag Day, so that’s June 14. That will be about two months from when we really got the project going and up to speed. That just depends on how many people come and participate.
There’s more than one way to participate. We feel like we have a lot of options, and it’s more accessible than it’s ever been because of how recent (the 1950 census) is. Recognizing handwriting from 1950s is not that different from recognizing handwriting from a week ago. Things haven’t changed that dramatically. And so, it’s a really accessible experience. And these are people that everybody knows. It’s kind of fun to come in and see what you can find in those areas where your family is from.
Innovations in the 1950 Census Index
(11:07) Lisa: Exactly. You said something which I hope everybody really appreciates, which is that you indexing every field. I mean, you must have gotten excited when you heard that was really going to be possible. It’s a game changer because now you can slice and dice data in so many ways. You can look up everybody who worked on the railroad or whatever the fields are that were filled out. What do you think the impact will be of that? Will that change anything about genealogy research?
Jim: Yes, it will. And not just genealogical research but also understanding the makeup of our country in 1950. And really understanding the history of our nation because that is part of your family history is enabled by capturing those additional fields. Being able to see differences in income, differences in occupation from region to region, being able to easily see, neighborhoods.
The address for the 1950 census is similar to the 1940 census in that it’s a vertical capture down the side of the forms. So that is something that just allows people to see what’s there today, if their house is still there. These are experiences that that we’ve dreamed of but without the index it is impossible to provide that sort of an experience. And so now with the commercial entities and what we’re trying to do, you’re going to have a lot of different experiences now that are unlocked and available because of these innovations. And especially with Ancestry’s (technology) it has enabled us to do this.
Is the 1950 census available for free?
(13:06) Lisa: Since you’re partnering together, is it available at Ancestry for free as well as for FamilySearch?
Jim: Ancestry will make their own businesses decisions. But yes, initially, it’ll be available for free. They’ve opened up the 1940 census recently, and that’s been available for free. I don’t know what all their future plans are. It allows them a lot of flexibility on how to do that. Of course, we make everything we can available for free at FamilySearch.
Again, there’s going to be a lot of different experiences that are available around this record set. So, it’s exciting going all the way back to how the National Archives made it available. It’s really democratizing the records. I think their goal is to just make it accessible to as many people as possible. And then it’s these other organizations that have a vision for what they can do with those records.
Lisa: Yes, and you guys certainly had the vision around the indexing project. That’s something that is such a skill that you’ve all developed and really fine-tuned. You’ve been able to crowdsource so much of what then becomes available to everybody.
Tell folks how they can get involved in it. And I’m really interested in some of the changes. I was very excited to hear that people will be able to have, in a way a more personal indexing experience. Tell folks about that.
Jim: Something that everybody wants to do when they come in and volunteer and get involved in a project is to find their own family. That will be expedited. When the index is published and available, after it’s been reviewed, everybody’s going to have that wonderful experience. But even on the review side, we’ve made it so people can search for a specific location down to the county level, or, in some cases down to the city level. Then you can actually search for a surname, or last name within that location. Now, if your family hasn’t already been reviewed, you’ll be able to review it if it hasn’t been reviewed. That just means that it’s going to be published sooner, because progress has already been made. And then you can come back and review it.
How to make corrections to the 1950 census index
(15:42) If for some reason, the person who reviewed it did it wrong, you can still make corrections. We do corrections on FamilySearch. Ancestry does corrections on Ancestry. And we are sharing whatever corrections are made on FamilySearch with Ancestry so they can get the benefit of any corrections that are made on our website as well. So that’s terrific.
For the 1940 census we had 163,000 people come and help and get involved. And with how easy it is for 1950, we think that we’ll have well over 200,000 people who will come and want to review these names.
How to volunteer to index the 1950 census
(16:30) If you want to get involved, there are a couple different places you can go. But the easiest place to remember is familysearch.org/1950census. And on that page, there’s a lot of information. Near the top of the page there’s a big link to join the project and to come over and participate.
The project is ongoing. All the states are there, some have already been published. Come and get involved and see what you can do. It’s going very quickly, and people are really enjoying it. We’re glad that it’s along as quickly as it is.
Lisa: Volunteers can do this from home from their computer. Is there a certain minimum commitment that they have to make or a certain minimum amount of technological ability?
Jim: No. This is again one of the things that’s kind of fun. I mentioned that briefly before there’s actually more than one experience or a way to participate.
(17:42) The standard way that most people who’ve done it before want to participate is what we call the Household Review. With the household review we try to identify from the head of the house, all the members of the household or the family to the next head of the house. That can sometimes cross pages on the census forms. That is an every field review. You can review as many of those fields as you want. And then the next person can come and pick up where you left off. So that’s really fun. It does require you to be on a computer.
(18:27) There are two other types of tasks. One doesn’t require you to be on a computer. You can be on your handheld device, your smartphone. It is what we call Name Review. So, instead of reviewing all of the fields, you can download our app called Get involved. FamilySearch Get Involved is available on the iTunes Store or the Apple Store, as well as from Google, the Android store. You can download the app and you can just start looking at the images where we have the names of the people in the census. Then you can compare that with what the computer thinks it is. You can either say yes, that’s right or no, and you can actually enhance or fix what the name is. You can do hundreds of these in an hour. I’ve done it, and it’s a fun activity. It’s really engaging if you like seeing that you’re making a difference in terms of volume. It’s a really fun way to participate.
Again, the computer doesn’t always get it right. So, you have to be really careful in the review process. But it’s super easy to just look at the image and look at the index value for the name and just make sure it’s right. You don’t have to have the app though.
(20:00) So, there’s the Household Review or the Name Review. And then the other task is the Header Review.
every census image, every census ledger, has a header that includes all of the location information and the information about the enumeration itself. And reviewing that is a separate task. We broke that one out because again, the data is formatted differently. If you want to go in and help us, those have to be done as well to be able to publish the dataset. We invite you to come in and see what states still have the header review available, and you can help us finish out that as well. It’s not as exciting because it doesn’t include the names of the people. But it still has to be done to be able to publish the reviewed index.
Lisa: I hadn’t thought about the header, but that’s pretty important. If that’s not right, then we get way off track pretty quickly. It includes our enumeration district number, the county, etc. That makes a lot of sense.
Well, Jim, it sounds like you guys have really been innovating over at FamilySearch. We’re grateful. We’re grateful that you’re giving everybody watching an opportunity to also give back a little bit and we can all pull together and get this done by Flag Day.
My genealogy research looks a lot like yours. Some family tree lines go back to pre-Revolutionary War. Other lines are richly researched well into the early 19th century.
And then there’s THAT family line. You know the one I mean. The one where the courthouse containing the records we need has burned down, or the records were microfilmed ages ago but are still sitting in the FamilySearch granite vault due to copyright issues. Or worst of all, it appears the needed records just don’t exist.
Don’t let these obstacles allow you to give up hope.
Every day, new records are being discovered and digitized. Records that have been languishing in a copyright stalemate might suddenly be cleared for publication. Or a cousin could contact you out of the blue and has the letters your grandmother sent hers. We never know when the records we’ve been waiting for, searching for, and yearning for, will bubble up to the surface.
Today I’m happy to share my story of a recent breakthrough that I never saw coming. Follow along with me as I take newly unearthed rocks and use tools to turn them into sparkling gems.
This is Almost Embarrassing
My one, agonizing family line that stops short in its tracks ends with my great grandfather Gustave Sporowski.
Gustave and Louise Sporowski (personal collection)
It’s almost embarrassing to admit. I’ve been at this nearly my whole life, and genealogy is my career for goodness sake! But there it is, a family tree with lovely far-reaching limbs except for this little stub of a branch sticking out on my maternal grandmother’s side.
I was about eight years old the first time I asked my grandma about her parents and their families. (Yes, this genealogy obsession goes back that far with me!) I still have the original page of cryptic notes she scratched out for me during that conversation.
Excerpt from Grandma’s original notes. (Personal collection)
She had several nuggets of information about her mother’s family. However, when it came to her father Gustave, she only recalled that he was the youngest of seven brothers. No names came to mind. I’ve always felt that if I could just identify some of the brothers, one of them may have records that provide more details about their parents.
According to his Petition for Naturalization, Gustave Sporowksi and Louise Nikolowski were married in LutgenDortmund, Germany. This indicated that both moved west from East Prussia before emigrating. While I knew Louise’s immediate family were in the LutgenDortmund area as well, I had no idea whether Gustave moved there on his own or with his family.
Gustave Sporowski’s Petition for Naturalization.
Gus (as he was later known) emigrated from Germany in 1910, landing at Ellis Island. He toiled in the coal mines of Gillespie, Illinois, and eventually earned enough money to move his wife and children west to California in 1918.
After filing his papers and years of waiting, he proudly became a U.S. citizen in 1940.
On that paperwork, he clearly states his birthplace as Kotten, Germany. You won’t find this location on a map today. In 1881, the year he was born, the area was East Prussia. I remember the hours I spent with gazeteers many years ago trying to locate that little village nestled just within the border of Kreis Johannisburg. Being so close to the border meant that he could have attended church there or in a neighboring district.
The records in the area are scarce, and today the entire area is in Poland.
Surprisingly, the records situation is quite the opposite with his wife Louise, also from East Prussia. She lived not far away in Kreis Ortelsburg, and the records for the church her family attended in Gruenwald are plentiful. I’ve managed to go many more generations back with her family.
And so, poor Gus alone sits in my family tree.
I periodically search to see if there’s anything new that has surfaced, but to no avail. I even hired a professional genealogical firm to review my work and suggest new avenues. I guess it is good news to hear you’ve pursued all known available leads, but it’s not very rewarding.
Over time, we tend to revisit tough cases like this less frequently. They become quiet. Digital dust begins to settle on the computer files.
And then it all changes.
German Address Books at Ancestry.com
I regularly make the rounds of the various genealogy websites, making note of new additions to their online collections. I typically publish the updates on a weekly basis here on the Genealogy Gems blog. It makes my day when readers like you comment or email, bursting with excitement about how one of the collections I mentioned busted their brick wall. I love my job.
This week I’m the one who is bursting!
It started simply enough. My third stop on my regular records round-up tour was Ancestry.com. The list of new records was particularly robust this week. The word “Germany” always catches my eye, and the second item on the list jumped out at me:
“Recently Added and Updated Collections on Ancestry,” Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 05 Sept 2019)
I should have had a healthy dose of skepticism that I would be fortunate enough to find anything. But to be perfectly honest, I felt instinctively that I would! Have you ever just had that feeling that your ancestors are sitting right there ready to be found? If you’ve been researching your family history for a while, then I’m guessing you have. Such a nice feeling, isn’t it?
So, I clicked, and I simply entered Sporowski in the last name field and clicked Search.
Experience has taught me that there haven’t been a lot of folks through history with this surname, so I’m interested in taking a look at anyone who pops up in the results. And yippie aye oh, did they ever pop up!
The results list include 31 people with the surname of Sporowski!
These names came from the pages of address books much like the city directories so common in the U.S. Since this collection was new to me, I took a moment to read up on the history.
GENEALOGY RESEARCH TIP: Learning the History of the Genealogy Record Collection
To truly understand what you are looking at when reviewing search results, we need to acquaint ourselves with the history of the collection.
Why was it created?
What does it include?
What does it not include?
Look to the left of the search results and click Learn more about this database.
It’s definitely worth clicking this link because the next page may also include a listing of Related Data Collections, some of which you might not be aware. These could prove very useful, picking up the pace to finding more records.
In the case of foreign language records, look for a link to the Resource Center for that country. There you may find translation help and tips for interpreting handwriting and difficult-to-read script.
Ancestry Help Features
On the Learn more about this database page, I learned some important things about these search results.
First, not every citizen was listed. Only heads of households were included. This means that wives and children would not appear. I did find some widows, though, because they were the head of their household.
Second, Optical Character Recognition (OCR) was used on this collection. Ancestry suggests looking for errors and providing corrections. But this information about OCR also implies something even more important to the genealogist. We must keep in mind that OCR is not perfect. In this case, I planned on browsing the collection after reviewing the search results to ensure I didn’t miss anyone. This would include targeting people listed in the “S” section of directories for towns I might expect the family to be.
I was particularly thrilled to see the name “Emil Sporowski” on the list.
Several months ago I found a World War I Casualty list from a newspaper published in 1918.
On it was listed Emil Sporowski and he was from the village of Kotten. This was the first mention of Gustave’s birthplace in the record of another Sporowski that I had ever found. So, you can imagine my delight as I stared at his name in the address book search results.
The icing on that cake was that he was listed in the address book of Bochum. That town name was very familiar to me because I had seen it on a few old family photos in Louise Sporowski’s photo album. Although the photos did not have names written on them, I could easily identify the folks who had the facial characteristics of Louise Nikolowski’s clan, and those sporting the large eyes with heavy lids like Gus.
Photo from Louise Nikolowski’s photo album.
Spreading the German Addresses Out with Spreadsheets
With one and a half pages delivering a total of 31 Sporowski names, I knew I had some work ahead of me to tease them apart. This got me thinking of Genealogy Gems Podcast episode that I’m currently working on, which features a conversation with professional genealogist Cari Taplin. When I asked Cari how she organizes her data, she told me that she uses spreadsheets. I’m not typically a spreadsheet kind of gal, but in this case, I could see the benefits. Spreadsheets offer a way to get everybody on one page. And with the power of Filters and Sorting you slice and dice the data with ease. My first sort was by town.
My Excel spreadsheet tracking German Address Books search results at Ancestry.com
GENEALOGY RESEARCH TIP: Free Genealogy Gems Download
Click here to download the simple yet effective spreadsheet I used for this research project. If you find your German ancestors in this collection, it’s ready to use. Otherwise, feel free to modify to suit your needs in a similar situation.
As you can see in the spreadsheet, these address books include occupations. For example, Emil was listed both as a Schmied and a Schlosser. A simple way to add the English translation to my spreadsheet was to go to Google.com and search Google Translate. Words and phrases can be translated right from the results page.
Translating the Occupation found in the German Address Books using Google Translate (Available at https://translate.google.com. Accessed 05 Sept 2019)
You can also find several websites listing German occupations by Googling old german occupations.
I quickly ran into abbreviations that were representing German words. For example, Lina Sporowski is listed with as Wwe .
A Google search of german occupations abbreviations didn’t bring a website to the top of the list that actually included abbreviations. However, by adding one of the abbreviations to the search such as “Wwe.” it easily retrieved web pages actually featuring abbreviations.
GENEALOGY RESEARCH TIP: Use Search Operators when Googling
Notice that I placed the abbreviation in quotation marks when adding it to my Google search query. Quotation marks serve as search operators, and they tell Google some very important information about the word or phrase they surround.
The quotation marks tell Google that this word or phrase must appear in every search result. (If you’ve ever googled several words only to find that some results include some of the words, and other results include others, this will solve your problem.)
They also tell Google that the word(s) MUST be spelled exactly the way it appears on each search result. This is particularly helpful when searching an abbreviation like Wwe. which isn’t actually a word. Without the quotation marks, you will likely get a response from Google at the top of the search results page asking you if you meant something else.
Katherine was my guest on Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast Episode #151 available exclusively to our Premium eLearning Members. She’s also written a couple of articles for Genealogy Gems on German translation:
As it turns out, Wwe. stands for Widow. This tells me that Lina’s husband was deceased by 1961.
Finding the German Addresses in Google Earth
The most glorious things found in these old address books are the addresses themselves!
Google Earth is the perfect tool to not only find the locations but clarify the addresses. Many were abbreviated, but Google Earth made quick work of the task.
Unlike other free Google Tools, Google Earth is available in a variety of forms:
Free downloadable software
Google Earth in the Chrome Web browser
A mobile app
Each has powerful geographic features, but I always recommend using the software. The web version and app don’t have all the tools available in the software. All versions require an internet connection. You can download the software here.
In the Google Earth search box I typed in the address. Don’t worry if you don’t have the full address or if you think it may be spelled incorrectly. Google Earth will deliver a results list of all the best options that most closely match.
In my case, reliable Google Earth not only gave me complete addresses, but also the correct German letters.
I went through the entire list. As I found each location in Google Earth, I checked it off on the spreadsheet.
Addresses found in German Address Books at Ancestry.com marked in the spreadsheet
GENEALOGY RESEARCH TIP: Create a Folder in Google Earth
When you have several locations like this to plot, I recommend creating a folder in the Places panel in Google Earth. It’s super easy to do and will help you stay organized. Here’s how:
Right-click (PC) on the MyPlaces icon at the top of the Places panel (left side of the Google Earth screen)
Select Add > Folder in the pop-up menu
A New Folder dialog box will appear
Type the name of your folder
Click OK to close the folder
You can drag and drop the folder wherever you want it in the Places panel
Click to select the folder before placing your Placemarks. That way each placemark will go in that folder. But don’t worry, if you get a placemark in the wrong spot, just drag and drop it into the folder.
The beauty of Google Earth as that you can start to visualize your data in a whole new way. Zooming out reveals these new findings within the context of previous location-based research I had done on related families. As you can see in the image below, all the Sporowskis that I found in the German Address books at Ancestry.com are clustered just five miles from where photos were taken that appear in Louise Sporowski’s photo album.
I’ve Only Just Begun to Discover my German Ancestors at Ancestry.com
We’ve covered a lot of ground today, but this is just the beginning. There are additional sources to track down, timelines to create, photos to match up with locations, and so much more. In many ways, I’ve only scratched the surface of possibilities. But I need to stop writing so I can keep searching! 😊
I hope you’ve enjoyed taking this journey with me. Did you pick up some gems along the way that you are excited to use? Please leave a comment below! Let us all know which tips and tools jumped out at you, and any gems that you found.
A ton of genealogy and family history research can be done for free. In this episode I’ll share 15 fabulous free websites and what I love about them. These are essential for everyone serious about saving money while climbing their family tree.
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“Cooperative effort between the National Park Service and several public and private partners whose goal is to increase Americans’ understanding of this decisive era in American history by making information about it widely accessible.
11. Soldiers and Sailors Database
Men who served in the Union and Confederate armies during the Civil War.
Histories of Union and Confederate regiments.
Links to descriptions of significant battles.
Selected lists of prisoner-of-war records and cemetery records.