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.
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.
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.
I can hardly believe it. This month, the Genealogy Gems website will reach a milestone 1000 blog posts! Thank YOU for your emails, phone calls and comments at conferences. I often share your success stories and use your feedback to bring you more great content.
Below is a list of our most-read posts so far. Did you miss any? Keep reading to learn how to win a a great family history writing prize by sharing this post on Facebook!
Our Top 10 Blog Posts
1. Ancestry Up for Sale? By far the most-read post in 2015! We weren’t just talking about the sale rumor, but sharing advice on saving your Ancestry trees, sources and DNA, which everyone should do.
2. Best Genealogy Software: Which You Should Choose and Why. This is my spiel on why you should keep your master family tree on software at home–not on your favorite genealogy website. It includes my top picks for family tree software, including free options.
3. Four Fabulous Ways to Use the Library of Congress for Genealogy. A lot of you are interested in the Library of Congress’ online resources for digitized photos, newspapers and how-tos for archiving your family history. Read all about it!
4. Free Google Earth for Genealogy Class. The conference lectures I give on Google Earth for genealogy are so popular that I created a free video that everyone can watch from home. Click on the post, and you can watch the video, too.
5. AncestryDNA Review and Breaking News: Updates Launched. Our own DNA correspondent Diahan Southard penned this popular post on AncestryDNA’s ground-breaking integration of our genetics data and our genealogy trees.
6. Seven Free Google Searches Every Genealogist Should Use. Are you getting the most out of free Google search technologies? Scan this list and see what’s missing from your search strategies!
7. NEW! Try This Now! U.S. Social Security Applications and Claims Index. For U.S. researchers, this was the blockbuster database of summer 2015. Millions of parents’ names, birthplaces and more now beef up this go-to Social Security database–its’ far better than its sparse predecessor, the SSDI.
8. Confused by Your AncestryDNA Matches? Read This Post. Another hit from DNA expert Diahan Southard! A great explanation of how to use your New Ancestor Discoveries on AncestryDNA.
9. How are We Related? Use a Cousin Calculator. It’s a simple, easy online tool, shared in response to a listener’s question.
10. New AncestryDNA Common Matches Tool: Love it! Diahan reports on a fabulous online tool that pulls out shared genetic matches between two people at AncestryDNA.
Will you please share this post on your Facebook timeline to help me spread the word about the “gems” you can find on the Genealogy Gems blog?
Here’s a little extra incentive: Use the hashtag #genealogygems and SHARE THIS POST ON YOUR FACEBOOK PAGE BY FRIDAY (November 20, 2015), and you’ll be entered in a contest to win the Pain Free Family History Writing Project video course download. It’s presented by Gems Contributing Editor Sunny Morton and donated by our friends at Family Tree University. Of course you’re welcome to add any comments on your “shared” post, like which Genealogy Gems blog post has most inspired you or helped your research. That feedback helps us bring you more posts you’ll love.
Ancestry.com is packed with all kinds of mostly-undiscovered genealogical treasures, and some of them you’ll never find from a search box.
Here, expert Nancy Hendrickson shares some favorite treasures, tips for finding those treasures, and helpful reminders for improving your genealogy research.
(We provide links for your convenience to the various online resources and some may be affiliate links for which we receive compensation at no additional expense to you. Thank you for your support.)
Ancestry.com is a “genealogy giant:” one of the four biggest global records resources. Whether you subscribe or have free access through your local library or Family History Center, you should not miss exploring this website for your family history.
Ancestry is also a financial investment. If you’ve been using the site for quite a while, you may be wondering if you are really getting all you can out of it’s vast genealogical record collections and many research tools.
Nancy Hendrickson, the author of The Unofficial Guide to Ancestry.com and the Unofficial Ancestry.com Workbook: A How-To Manual for Tracing Your Family Tree on the #1 Genealogy Website knows the website inside and out. Today she’s sharing four great tips for taking your research to the next level. In addition, we’ve added in some examples and additional things to consider. So let’s get started using Ancestry more effectively.
4 Tips for Using Ancestry.com More Effectively
1. Verify what you learn.
Any single record can be wrong, incomplete, or misread by you or by the person how indexed it. Double check the assertions made in the record by looking for that same information in additional sources. Be careful to make sure your sources weren’t getting their information from the same person or place. Otherwise, they’ll naturally say the same thing!
Nobody wants to discover conflicting information, of course. But you do want to know if something is inaccurate before it leads you down a wrong research path.
The best thing about verifying facts in additional sources is that sometimes you find NEW or BETTER information such as:
- parents’ names,
- a middle name that proves key to someone’s identity,
- or a burial place.
For example, let’s say you find an ancestor’s death date in the Social Security Death Index. While it’s a great source, don’t stop there!
Like any record, the SSDI is sometimes wrong and the information it contains is definitely limited. Use the Ancestry.com Card Catalog to see what records about death may be on the site for that time and place. You’ll find the Card Catalog under Search in the main menu.
Use the filters on the left side to drill down to death records for the location you want. Remember that records collections have been created on a specific geographical level: try local, regional (such as state or province) as well as national levels.
2. Don’t just repeat what other people’s trees say.
Seeing the same information over and over can provide a false sense of accuracy. Remember, just because seven different online trees name the same parents for one of your ancestors doesn’t mean those are the correct parents. Those Ancestry users may all be misquoting the same wrong source without actually verifying the information!
You often come across likely matches in others’ trees when you review Ancestry’s automated “leaf” hints, or when you run a general search on a name. When you do, it’s simply an indication that the tree may be worth exploring. Here’s an example:
Let’s take a closer look at this example.
The purple arrows: You can see that multiple pieces of very specific information are the same on your tree and another one.
The red arrow: You see sources attached to that person’s profile, such as the news article thumbnail image. (Note the difference with the record shown below, with just an empty profile image.) Yes, you will definitely want to review that news article!
The blue arrow: In addition to either of the above, you also see specific information that is unknown to you.
This tree profile looks promising enough you might naturally consider reviewing the tree hint and attaching it to yours. But then you wouldn’t be able to see the news article or other sources attached to that tree.
Instead, click the checkbox and then click the name of the tree to look at it and its attached sources:
Then you’ll be able to check out the news article along with the other sources and records attached to this person’s profile. You won’t just see what that person thinks about your common ancestor – you’ll see evidence of why she thinks it.
3. Ancestry.com has more than indexed historical documents.
Nancy reminds us that “Ancestry.com is a fantastic resource for old maps, stories, photos, published county histories, and more. For example, looking at the old maps in their collections can reveal the true nature of an ancestor’s daily life, hardships, travels, and more. And your chance of finding early American ancestors is high in county histories: there were fewer people and early settlers were talked about, even if the family wasn’t wealthy or prominent.”
Here are some of Nancy’s favorite collections at Ancestry:
This collection includes nearly 7 million records extracted from about 1,200 county and land ownership maps from across the country. These are indexed by property owners’ names.
According to the collection description, “They also indicate township and county boundaries and can include photos of county officers, landholders, and some buildings and homes.”
This is a browse-only collection of “more than 2,200 volumes of county and regional histories from California, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
In them you’ll find history, biographical sketches, maps, business notices, statistics and population numbers, pictures, descriptions of industry and business, stories of early settlement and pioneers, colleges and universities, military history, geography, and plenty of other details.”
Reminder: you can’t search this database by an ancestor’s name. Instead, look for places, and then start reading.
A collection of maps and atlases detailing land areas that comprise the present-day United States and Canada, as well as various other parts of the world. It contains a variety of maps and atlases created for different scopes and purposes, including land ownership atlases and bird’s-eye view maps.
Land ownership atlases usually show the names of contemporary owners or occupants of land and structures.
Some of the maps depict countries and wider geographical areas, while others depict counties, cities, towns, and smaller geographical areas.
4. Expand your search to the other Ancestry resources on the Web
Ancestry owns a lot of other web resources. Search these too!
Nancy says, “They include Find A Grave, Fold3, and RootsWeb, one of the oldest online genealogy communities around. Don’t give up! Keep looking in other places for the information you want to find.”
Find A Grave
Search results from Ancestry.com do include Find A Grave entries. Many of these contain additional information about the deceased and links to their relatives. As always, be sure to confirm the information you find here.
Fold3 is home to millions of U.S. military records. Ancestry.com subscribers can upgrade their subscription to include Fold3 access, or you can subscribe separately.
RootsWeb is a free and long-lived family history web resource, now hosted by Ancestry.
“The primary purpose and function of RootsWeb.com is to connect people so that they can help each other and share genealogical research,” says the site. “Most resources on RootsWeb.com are designed to facilitate such connections.” You can use RootsWeb in a variety of ways: search it, contribute records, upload your family tree, post your family surnames on a board others can see, and more.
Ancestry has changed one of the ways RootsWeb users have traditionally connected: Mailing Lists. According to the website:
“Beginning March 2nd, 2020 the Mailing Lists functionality on RootsWeb will be discontinued. Users will no longer be able to send outgoing emails or accept incoming emails. Additionally, administration tools will no longer be available to list administrators and mailing lists will be put into an archival state. Administrators may save the email addresses in their list prior to March 2nd. After that, mailing list archives will remain available and searchable on RootsWeb. As an alternative to RootsWeb Mailing Lists, Ancestry message boards are a great option to network with others in the genealogy community. Message boards are available for free with an Ancestry registered account.”
Learn More about Using Ancestry
Nancy Hendrickson’s Book
Nancy shares many more Ancestry tips and treasures in her Unofficial Ancestry.com Workbook. To get the most out of this book read the section on using the Ancestry.com Catalog. Nancy does 95% of her research in the catalog. The workbook is divided into topics, such as military records, so choose a chapter that fits your current goals. It’s also important to not just read the workbook, but also do the exercises. They teach you Nancy’s thought processes for how she finds specific answers or approaches certain types of problems. Then you can apply the same concepts to your own research. Don’t miss the chapter on social history. That’s where you’ll dig into everyday life. And finally, take advantage of the forms that are included. They will help you log your findings and analyze what you’ve learned.
Genealogy Gems Article
Browse-only collections at Ancestry and other genealogy websites are sometimes viewed as inaccessible, but they are actually a hidden treasure. Click here to read How to Find and Browse Unindexed Records at Ancestry – The Better Browsing Checklist. In this article you’ll learn how to access these browse-only collections at Ancestry and expand your family history research.
Today’s gem focuses on a challenge that we all face as family historians – getting organized, archiving all of our stuff, and digitizing materials an d photos. I know that’s biting off a big chunk, but it’s such an important one. And in this episode I’m going to start to break it down for your with the help of the Family Curator, Denise Levenick who has written a book called How to Archive Family Keepsakes. She’s got lots of practical advice to share.
FamilySearch recently announced that their U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Community Project is Half-way to its 2012 Goal of 30 Million Records
In August of this year, FamilySearch announced its next major U.S. community project-U.S. Immigration and Naturalization. The project will create an extensive, free, online collection of U.S. passenger lists, border crossing records, naturalization records, and more-invaluable to genealogy researchers. See what U.S. Immigration and Naturalization projects are currently underway, or check on their status at FamilySearch.org/immigration.
You can join the community of online indexers and arbitrators helping to make passenger lists and naturalization records freely searchable on familysearch.org.
Current and Completed Projects
To view a list of currently available indexing projects, along with their record language and completion percentage, visit the FamilySearch indexing updates page. To learn more about individual projects, view the FamilySearch projects page.
Canadian Military Records
Ancestry.ca has also announced that they have launched some New Canadian Military Records Collections
Read about it on my Blog: Limited Time Free Access to Canadian Military Records, and New Records Online
Google recently announced that Google Maps just got the biggest Street View update ever, doubling the number of special collections and updating over 250,000 miles of roads around the world. Google has increased Street View coverage in Macau, Singapore, Sweden, the U.S., Thailand, Taiwan, Italy, Great Britain, Denmark, Norway and Canada. And they are launching special collections in South Africa, Japan, Spain, France, Brazil and Mexico, among others. .
They’ve also recently updated the Google Earth satellite imagery database. This refresh to the imagery has now been updated for 17 cities and 112 countries/regions. So Google Earth has never been better for genealogy research. And of course if you would like to learn more about what Google Earth can do for you as a genealogist, check out my free YouTube videos which show you what you can learn in Google Earth for Genealogy Video Tutorial Series.
Genealogy Gems Premium Membership Update
I’m happy to let all of you Premium members know that I’ve put together a quick little video that will walk you through the process of setting up your Premium podcast feed in iTunes.You’ll find a link on the premium episodes page once you’ve signed in that will take you to the video and instructions for setting up your Premium iTunes subscription.
I have also added a video recording of one my most popular classes to the Premium Videos collection. It’s called How the Genealogist Can Remember Everything with Evernote.
From Premium Member Kelly: “Thank you so much for your podcast on Evernote. I’ve been on YouTube watching videos about it but they were hard to follow and more advanced or to techie. Your podcast was easy to follow and went over the basics and I really appreciate that. I think I finally ready to try it.”
If you would like to be able to watch the Evernote class from the comfort of your own home please join us as a Genealogy Gems Premium Member which you can do at www.genealogygems.com
From Patience: “I have noticed in your podcast, other’s podcasts, blogs, and at workshops I have attended that there is a concern about the next generation. I do understand, but I wanted to share with you my experience in hopes of easing everyone’s worries. I am 23 years old, and let me tell you I stick out like a sore thumb at workshops as I usually am the youngest by at least 30 years. That being said when I started researching I met one of my cousins on ancestry.com, and we really hit it off we have all the same interests and are like long lost twins. For a while, I assumed that she was retired, and much much older than I, but after several emails, I found out she is only two years older than me!!!
I too worry about my generation, but I think after some maturing, most will at least have an appreciation for the past, and everything it has to offer, or at least I hope…But all I know is that there are two very pretty twenty-something girls thousands of miles apart that would rather research and learn that go to parties…so that seems pretty hopeful I think.”
Jennifer Takes the iPad on the Road
“Kudos for turning me on to a nifty iPad shortcut. Your latest book has some tips in the back, which is where, of course, I skipped to after dutifully reading the first three chapters or so. The tips about swiping the comma/exclamation point to create an apostrophe, and the other shortcut for quotation marks, are so great! I will no doubt find many other useful items when I return to reading. Honestly, your books are so full of wonderful information, I have to take a break before my head explodes (not pretty).”
Pat Oxley, a Genealogist on Facebook posted her review of my new book on Facebook last week. “Despite another day of coughing and basically feeling yuk, I bought and downloaded Lisa Louise Cooke‘s new book “Turn your iPad into a Genealogy Powerhouse.” It is FABULOUS! I worked my way through the book, taking notes and then downloaded and played with some of the apps she suggested! Thank you Lisa Louise! I will say it’s a terrific book even if you’re NOT a genealogist. Many of her suggested apps could be applied to many different hobbies and interests. You can buy it through Lulu.com.”
GEM: Interview with author Denise Levenick, The Family Curator
Archiving, organizing and digitizing family treasures is one of the greatest challenges for genealogists. In her book How to Archive Family Keepsakes: Learn How to Preserve Family Photos, Memorabilia and Genealogy Records, Denise Levenick presents a game plan that breaks down the steps and provides a clear picture of the end goal. The worksheets and checklists provide the kind of practical advice I look for in “how to” books. No fluff, just common sense, and usable information that lead to success.
Get your copy of Denise’s book How to Archive Family Keepsakes: Learn How to Preserve Family Photos, Memorabilia and Genealogy Records and start getting organized now!
Denise May Levenick is a writer, researcher, and speaker with a passion for preserving and sharing family treasures of all kinds. She is the author of How to Archive Family Keepsakes and creator of The Family Curator blog http://www.TheFamilyCurator.com, voted one of the 40 Best Genealogy Blogs in 2010 and 2011.
Gem: One More Thing
From Tina in the UK: “Your recent blog post about items found when clearing out a house reminded me of my most significant find in my stepfather’s attic. He died in July 2009 and my mother wanted to clear out and sell their big house and move to a retirement flat to be near the family in Bristol. I should explain that my mother and father divorced when I was a baby and my stepfather was like a father to me. We threw out masses of stuff – he never did, EVER! – but this was mostly correspondence, company reports for all his shares etc which we sifted through without much of note being found. Then, in the attic there were two extraordinary finds:
(1) a box full of the small notebooks he kept from his schooldays till a few years before he died…early ones and especially the ones of his years in the Army in India and Burma…The later notebooks are a record of his expenses – with dates, items and expenses which brought back many memories (eg doll for Tina – bought in New York on holiday in 1958 – I remember it well, it was a sort of pre-Barbie!). Every ice-cream he ever bought us – there was a LOT of ice-cream (he loved it)!
(2) my grandfather’s old attache case – full of letters from my stepfather’s mother between about 1978 and her death in 1993. There were hundreds of them – and yes, I read every single one and they have formed the basis of the story of her life (yes, she also left a small diary, a collection of her own recipes of family favourites, and a very simple family tree), which I am now writing…what VERY little there was seemed to be in answer to some of his questions…It just shows how the smallest things can provide clues.”
Thank you Tina for sharing this – it certainly does remind us that clues can come from anywhere. But it also reminds us of something else – that while it’s wonderful to have our history recorded so it can be remembered, sometimes it’s the smallest things that are remembered most: Like ice cream. I think I’m going to sign off now and take my grandson Davy out for a cone. I hope he remembers it, because I know I will. Who will you invite out for a an ice cream and spend your precious time with today?
Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links and Genealogy Gems will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on these links (at no additional cost to you). Thank you for supporting Genealogy Gems!