July 21, 2017

WPA Records for Genealogy: Historical Record Surveys, Local Histories and More


Have you used WPA records for genealogy? Their Historical Record Surveys and local and oral histories may help you in your family history research. Existing records and locations vary widely. Here are tips to help you in your search.

WPA records for genealogy

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, employees of the Works Progress Administration (WPA, also known as the Works Projects Administration) created new resources for U.S. genealogical research. It’s possible you’ve even consulted some of these without being aware of their WPA origins. After all, the projects and their formats varied. They didn’t always prominently credit the WPA and some were printed long afterward. We’re going to shine the spotlight on WPA-era local histories, oral histories and statewide Historical Record Surveys.

WPA Records for Genealogy: Local Histories

In Annie Barrows’ novel The Truth According to Us, Layla Beck heads to the small fictional town of Macedonia, West Virginia to write a local history as a WPA assignment. Drama ensues, both in Layla’s personal life and as she tries to learn local stories, which everyone reports a little differently. (We featured this book in the Genealogy Gems Book Club.)

Actually, local histories were written as WPA projects. Their scope, topics, and formats varied, depending on the unique background and resources of each region and how active WPA workers were in each state and county. For example, WPA historical materials in Morrison County, Minnesota include “histories on townships, cities, churches, schools, businesses, the military, and miscellaneous county history topics,” which have since been collected and reprinted by the county historical society. Many historical projects included photographs, such as this one for the city of New Orleans.

WPA Records for Genealogy: Oral Histories

WPA workers also captured oral histories of individuals, too. Many were collected in American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940, now online at the Library of Congress. According to the collection description, “The documents chronicle vivid life stories of Americans who lived at the turn of the century and include tales of meeting Billy the Kid, surviving the 1871 Chicago fire, pioneer journeys out West, factory work, and the immigrant experience. The documents often describe the informant’s physical appearance, family, education, income, occupation, political views, religion and mores.”

From one of the slave narratives mentioned in this article. Click image to read.

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.

A blank WPA Historical Records Survey church records inventory form. Image courtesy of the State Archives of Florida. Click this image to find it online at Florida Memory.

One great example is the Historical Records Survey for the state of Oregon, described as “the most comprehensive documentary project of Oregon history and related records of its time.” It includes historical essays, document transcriptions, interviews, research notes, photographs, pamphlets and more. According to its collection description, “The territorial and pioneer periods of the mid-to-late nineteenth century receive the greatest attention, with an emphasis on the growth of state government and infrastructure, business and agriculture, transportation, education, biography, and relations between social groups. Native Americans figure prominently in this collection.”

Finding WPA Records for Genealogy Online

Some WPA projects were carried out on a federal level and others by state agencies. They were never centrally published or collected. Today, surviving original files and published volumes are scattered across the country. Some can be found in the National Archives, many in state libraries or societies, and many more available at local repositories.

A Google search such as historical records surveys and the name of the state and/or county is a great way to start your search for WPA records for genealogy research. Some results will lead right to the kinds of resources you want, such as this guide to WPA records in archives in the Pacific Northwest. Others, such as this one for the Iowa Historical Records Survey published in The American Archivist, are mostly a history of the effort. However, they do contain several useful bibliographic citations to records that were created. Add the name of the county to your search and you may find more targeted results, such as this library catalog entry for the inventory of the Jasper County archives. Click here to learn more about Google searches for genealogy records you want to find.

Remember, though, that many WPA publications and collections aren’t identified as such. Don’t fixate on needing to find WPA listed in the title. Just concentrate your efforts on finding the local and oral histories, photos, historical record indexes and inventories, and other resources that may be out there. When you find one created during the Great Depression, you’ll know it may have been done by the WPA.

Love what you’re reading and want to learn more? Go deeper into genealogy “gems” like these in Lisa Louise Cooke’s Genealogy Gems Podcasts. Lisa produces a free internationally-renowned monthly podcast that’s had over 2.5 million downloads! Additionally, Genealogy Gems Premium website members also have access to her full archive of monthly Premium podcast epidodes: check out a full description of these here including Episode 2 on WPA records for genealogy.

Family Secrets, History and Love in the Great Depression: Genealogy Gems Book Club Pick

Our new Genealogy Gems Book Club pick takes you into the Great Depression with a young socialite’s WPA project to capture the history of a small West Virginia town. She finds drama, contradicting versions of the past and unexpected romance. Enjoy this novel by an internationally best-selling author!

It’s the summer of 1938. Wealthy young Layla Beck’s big problem is not the Great Depression: it’s her father’s orders to marry a man she despises. She rebels, and suddenly finds herself on the dole. A Works Progress Administration assignment lands her in Macedonia, West Virginia, where she’s to write its history. As she starts asking questions about the town’s past, she is drawn into the secrets of the family she’s staying with—and to a certain handsome member of that family. She and two of those family members take turns narrating the story from different points of view, exploring the theme that historical truth, like beauty, is often in the eye of the beholder.

That’s a nutshell version of our new Genealogy Gems Book Club featured title, The Truth According to Us by internationally best-selling author Annie Barrows. It’s available in print and on Kindle formats: click above to purchase. (Thanks for using this link: your purchase supports free content on the Genealogy Gems podcast and blog.)

Annie will join us in the March 2017 Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast for an exclusive interview. That’s a members-only podcast; everyone else can catch a meaty excerpt in the March episode of the free Genealogy Gems Podcast. Between now and then, watch our blog for related posts on The Truth According to Us and the Great Depression–including genealogical records produced by the WPA.

Once you’ve enjoyed The Truth According to Us, I heartily recommend you curl up with Annie’s previous novel, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Watch a trailer for that book here:

Her popular Ivy and Bean children’s book series is also an international best-selling series, and my daughter Seneca gives it two thumbs up!

genealogy book club family history readingClick here to see more Genealogy Gems Book Club selections and how you can listen to Lisa’s upcoming exclusive conversation with author Annie Barrows about The Truth According to Us.

 

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.)