1940 census: Family history at your fingertips

06/13/2012 1:59 PM

08/08/2014 10:10 AM

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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