Although the National Archives website records crashed on April 4 when the 1940 Census records were released, not everyone appreciates the importance to family researchers, historians, and genealogists. More people might, if they only knew how easily census records can uncover preliminary insights into the past.
“My extended family had been talking about exploring our family’s genealogy for years, but everyone was always put off by the tedious task of searching for birth certificates and other records,” says Richard Becker, CTO of Celebrating Legacy. “Because I was already familiar with online research, I was able to cut through much of the time investment involved, especially because of the census records.”
The first time Becker used an online genealogy site to search through records, he immediately started with a search for his maternal grandparents, people for whome he already had a residence, birth years, and death years. He could have worked with less information, but it was a start.
Lessons Learned From The 1930 Census.
When searching for family information contained in census information, it’s always best to start with the most immediate family members. For example, Becker searched for his grandfather, James G. Owens of Milwaukee prior to the release of the 1940 Census.
The 1930 Census records revealed what the Owens household looked like when Becker’s grandfather was only 17. It included two parents and four other siblings. It included their names with middle initials, approximate ages, and birthplaces of the parents.
“All of this information quickly provided more names to search,” said Becker. “I immediately knew my great-grandfather, James R. Owens, was born in Wisconsin around 1877. From this discovery, I could trace his path across four other census records, all of which would likely be in the Milwaukee area.”
Every additional census record revealed a little more information, sometimes with subtle differences depending on the information collected that year. On one set of records, it was easy to determine James R. Owens’ father (Becker’s great-great grandfather), James F. Owens, was a Welsh immigrant who worked as railroad car driver. So did one of his brothers.
“Although the 1880 Census provided some details, I also learned how researchers really have to look at every census,” said Becker. “It’s especially important to compare them all because it’s not uncommon to see mistakes. Birth years are sometimes off by one or two years and letters are added or dropped on some names.”
As an example, he mentioned how one census listed his great-great grandmother’s name as May, while all the others listed it as Mary. So, he says, comparing enables the researcher to correct those mistakes in their personal files.
Eventually, enough information can be lifted from census records to determine what other sources might be useful. For Becker, he learned James F. Owens came to America when he was about 6 or 7 years old, which means he came over with his parents around 1859. His great-great-great-grandfather was born in 1835 in Wales and may have immigrated to America because his young wife was English.
What This Means When the 1940 Census Is Recorded By Enumerators.
“Right now, most genealogy sites are adding all the information into their searchable databases,” said Becker. “As they are added to the databases, people whose families arrived in the United States between 1930 and 1940 will have a point of reference and there will be more households to compare future households to.”
Becker added that while many people use census information to look back, he intends to look forward too. For example, all of his grandfather’s brothers and sisters would have been young adults by the 1940 Census, many with new households of their own.
Along with census information to help pinpoint dates, the 1940 Census is especially detailed, identifying who in the household responded and whether the person worked for civil programs such as the CCC, WPA, or NYA. It also asked where people had lived five years prior, what type of education they had received, and how they identified their occupation.
Most genealogy sites charge a subscriptions to view various documents, which makes it especially important to try trial services before subscribing. Some services are easier to use than others, but almost all of them charge for additional services rather than allowing members to download files, including those who are working with the government to add the 1940 Census data to searchable sites.
Eventually, Celebrating Legacy will review the various services to help members have a better understanding of which might benefit them and for what purpose before conducting their own research and adding such information to their Celebrating Legacy accounts. Becker said almost all record sites make it seem like researching the past will be easy, but it is never as easy as you might think before you subscribe.
“Celebrating Legacy will focus on the immediate past and future at its launch, but the information our members share will eventually be invaluable for future generations because of the anecdotal content people will share,” he said. “Dates and relations are interesting, but we want to help people preserve their legacies and life prints.”