Friday, April 6, 2012

Thankful there is NO index for the 1940 census!

I can only speak for myself, but if you're reading, I wonder if you've experienced any of the same feelings this week.

It's been just five days now that family history enthusiasts (beginner, intermediate and professional alike) have had access to the nearly 4 million digital images that make up the 1940 Census. In that time, there have been a flood of news articles noting the surge in online traffic to leading websites and the growing interest in family history in recent years. This is all great to see. Also great to see the volunteer spirit that is behind the 1940 U.S. Census Community Project, a national service project to index 1940 census images.

I don't recall for certain the first time I tried to find my family in U.S. census records, but think it was about 1984-1985 while I was living just 15 minutes or so from the Northeast Regional archives in Waltham, MA (just west of Boston). Something about looking through census records and passenger lists for hours on microfilm that captivated me. Still does in some respects.

In recent years, many family historians, myself included, have been spoiled by the ability to visit a web site, type a name or two into a search box, and within a few minutes we often find ourselves connected with digital images of historical records containing details for our family. That's certainly great and a huge time saver, but I'm realizing something this week and wonder if I'm alone or not in my thought process.

Online access to such a variety of information has made me a bit lazy. There, I've put it out there for all to read. This past few days, I've found myself remembering what it used to be like to do real research. With no index of the 1940 census, I've been forced to look at birth and marriage certificates, city directories, maps (both old and new), and a variety of other sources to pinpoint the location of one or more family members in/around April 1940. With that information in hand, the amazing One-Step Tools (especially the Unified 1940 Census ED Finder by Steve Morse, Joel Weintraub, and volunteers) certainly are a tremendous time saver.

This experience has reminded me why I've grown to love genealogy research over so many years. I learn so much in the process. While looking for family members, as well as a few celebrities, I found myself doing a lot of unexpected side-reading this week. Reviewing documents or pages or unrelated articles from the 1930s, just to help me better understand things. What fun to learn things by accident. To set off looking for one thing and find several others in the process. Sometimes never even finding what it was I was searching for in the first place, but still I learned something about a different time and place.

Tonight I had nearly a dozen people (actually, I should say families) I wanted to find listed on 1940 population schedules. I had a 150% success rate! Found all the families I was looking for, but because I was forced to browse through many pages to get to them, I made quite a few accidental discoveries in the process. Turns out there is some truth to people who marry the girl next door. Even if she didn't exactly next door, I found a few situations where the future bride and groom were living less than 100 lines away from each other on census schedules.

One exciting moment was finding my dad's family at 52 Lafayette Street, Waterbury CT (ED 5-245). The 8th of 10 children, they are ALL living in the household. The ONLY census that will ever show his family in this fashion, the children ranged in age from 22 to 9 months. Had the census been 1 year earlier, we'd miss the youngest child. A year or two later, and several sons were off to war. To find my 57-year old grandfather with his 42-year old wife and all 10 children, that's a special document to have.

Certainly it will be great to have a name index in a few months time. That will help me find a few of the stubborn cases for which I can't seem to find a street address, but in the mean time, I'm exciting to sharpen my entire base of research skills AND my skills of critical thinking for how to approach a problem. Both had a layer of dust on them, something made possible by the 'search box syndrome' so common now in genealogy.

Happy Hunting!!


  1. Dan, I agree with this statement for a few reasons. It is great to see the genealogy community getting involved in doing the indexing. It will give a greater appreciation as to what is involved in indexing.

    Another reason is that I think some researchers are missing out on the clues we often found when we looked at multiple pages of a census, such as the ranges of occupations, a feeling for the numbers of empty homes or where people in the community were born. That is apart from finding other people of the same surname in reasonable proximity or people from the same birthplace close to our ancestors, perhaps finding family with the maiden name of an ancestor. All of these led to further reserch possibilities.

  2. You're not the only one, Dan. The "hunt" is probably the main thing that drew me to genealogy, and it wasn't until I dove into the 1940 census that I remembered what I loved about it in the first place. I have also made some "accidental" discoveries, and I'm still searching for the rest of the folks on my list. Thanks for letting me know I wasn't alone :)