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1940 census: Family history at your fingertips

  • Seattle Times
  • Published Wednesday, June 13, 2012, at 1:59 p.m.

More information

Tips to surf the census

How to navigate online archive of 1940 data:

Documents from the 1940 census can be found at 1940census.archives.gov.

The site is searchable using so-called enumeration district numbers. Enumeration districts are geographic areas, often the size of several city blocks, created for the purpose of taking the census.

To find the enumeration number, click on “start your search.” Then enter the state, county, city and street name of an ancestor’s residence in 1940. If you don’t know the street name, your search can become more difficult, but the information is not impossible to find.

Genealogists suggest that if you don’t know an address, other family members might know.

Another way to find an address is to search the 1930 census, which is actually indexed by names but is only accessible online through private genealogy websites. Obviously this is only effective if the individual you’re seeking lived at the same address in 1930 and 1940.

Yet another option is to check the 1940 telephone directory for that city.

The good news is that the 1940 census site will be searchable by name in about seven months, according to Constance Potter, reference archivist with the National Archives.

That won’t mean instant success. Potter said names are often misspelled on census documents. But learning the street name of the ancestor or looking up the name of a neighbor can solve the problem.

Once the street name and/or enumeration number are found, the original scanned copies of the census documents can be accessed. For now, you’ll need to review the documents manually until your ancestor’s name is found.

“You may have to read line by line (on the census documents),” said Potter. “The names don’t always instantly pop up. Remember, talk to family members, make a family tree and do your research; it can be an adventure, so have some fun with it.”

Chicago Tribune

Additional research

Many online services have digitized census records, including ancestry.com; familysearch.org and heritagequestonline.com.

Seattle Times

— In tracing the blood line of her maternal grandmother, Martha Collins has gone six generations deep — back to 1870.

In that year’s census — the first after the abolition of slavery — the Seattle woman found her great-great-great-grandmother, a mixed-race woman named Violet Yeats, living with her husband and their four children on a plantation in rural Mississippi.

Widowed in the late 1800s, Violet shows up in every subsequent 10-year survey through 1930, when she lived with a granddaughter and great-grandchildren in Mississippi — the year before she died.

The Census Bureau recently released original data that its enumerators collected from 132 million Americans in April 1940 — opening another portal for Collins and the nation’s growing number of family researchers to peer down their ancestral past.

The survey was conducted at a time when the nation was still feeling the effects of the Great Depression and at the dawn of World War II.

In the records from that year, Collins found Violet’s granddaughter — Elnora White — living with her husband and seven children as sharecroppers on a farm in a small Missouri town.

Elnora had a second-grade education; her husband had attended school through third grade. None of their children — ages 1 to 18 — was enrolled in school at the time.

“It feels like I’m connecting with these ancestors, pulling their lives together,” said Collins, 53, whose Seattle home has become a family repository of sorts, with photos of ancestors adorning the walls. “It gives you a glimpse into what their lives were like.”

Every 10 years, the Census Bureau releases original records from 72 years earlier — previously confidential demographic data from individual survey forms.

These once-a-decade releases are highly anticipated by growing numbers of Americans looking to trace their family lines deep into the past. Genealogy’s growing appeal is evidenced by the popularity of such TV shows as “Who Do You Think You Are?”

“The release is a big deal when it comes out,” said John LaMont, a genealogy librarian at Seattle Public Library.

The 1940 census data were the first to be released digitally, rather than on microfilm, putting this kind of research literally at people’s fingertips.

While U.S. census data won’t help you find Aunt Charlotte’s home in Germany or Japan or Liberia or anywhere else overseas, the records are among the many tools researchers use to build a family mosaic.

They also rely on family stories, diaries and a host of public and private records, such as birth and death, church, school, property and military documents, and, increasingly, DNA — which can link distant relatives who have made their DNA profiles publicly available for matching in any number of databanks.

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