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1940 Census records unlock family mysteries

By Emanuella Grinberg, CNN
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Tue April 17, 2012
Dannie Brown and Jannet Walsh used census records to learn about relatives like Margaret Walsh, left, and Uncle John Brown.
Dannie Brown and Jannet Walsh used census records to learn about relatives like Margaret Walsh, left, and Uncle John Brown.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Genealogists and history hunters use census records to solve family mysteries
  • Florida woman used 1940 Census to find great-grandfather's second wife
  • Records offer snapshots into lives of past inhabitants of homes

(CNN) -- Finding a long-lost uncle's name on a census form or discovering that Grandpa identified himself as a mural painter: It's the stuff genealogists and history hunters live for.

It also creates the kind of enthusiasm that endures weeks after the release of a major trove of information like the 1940 census. The National Archives' 1940 Census website crashed on April 4, the day the records were publicly released after a mandatory 72-year waiting period. Ancestry.com, which began rolling out the data on the same day, experienced a 175% traffic spike that day.

Two weeks later, those in the "family history space" are still digging deep into the records, with new discoveries being made each day, said Megan Smolenyak, family history adviser at Archives.com.

"The census is about as comprehensive as it gets when it comes to historic primary sources," she said. "The deeper you dig, the more answers you unlock. But, you also run into more puzzles."

Even among people who don't spend their free time poking around the family tree, 1940 census records offer bits of intrigue and curiosity from a bygone era: a time when homes cost $2,000 and indoor plumbing was still a luxury; when "shoe shanker" was a common occupation and people had names like Beguis. Celebrity watchers can also dig up information about stars born before World War II and find out who Betty White lived with and how much income her parents brought in.

Such a time, however, is not long forgotten. With people now living longer than ever, the records represent a unique instance in which some of those counted in the 1940 census are still alive, said Dan Jones, vice president of global content for genealogical website Ancestry.com.

"Being on the cusp between nostalgia and history is something that inspires people," he said.

This census in particular asked questions about past and current employment and participation in social welfare programs to gauge the effects of the New Deal, he said.

"The focus on economic drivers and socioeconomic factors give us insight into the living standards, lifestyles and circumstances of people as recently as our parents," Jones said.

For many, the records fill in blanks or serve as additional reference points for Mom and Dad's stories.

"On the surface, some of this information seems boring. But to a genealogist piecing together a family history, the 1940 census is priceless," said Lee Atwell-King, a stay-at-home mother who counts genealogy among her hobbies. "It helps fill in a period of time that is lost to the memory of my parents because they were so young, and to my grandparents because they are all deceased. There really is no other way to get the information now."

From the records, she learned that her maternal great-grandparents were living in Eveleth, Minnesota, when a census enumerator came to their home in 1940, much to her surprise. She thought they had moved to Milwaukee by that time, where her grandmother lived by then. She was also surprised to learn that her great-grandfather no longer worked in a mine, his job in the 1930 census, but for the health department.

Sharon Harris' search led to the truth about where her grandfather met his second wife. She knew that her grandfather was once married to a woman named Elsie, but she didn't know how they met. By finding his name listed under a boarding house, she discovered that he'd married the owner's daughter.

The records also hold interest to people abroad whose ancestors lived in the United States. Dannie Brown of Nova Scotia, Canada, never met his father's brothers and knew very little about them. The three boys were born in New Brunswick and emigrated with their parents to the United States before 1920, which Brown knows from having found them in the 1920 census. He also knew his grandparents eventually divorced, but he didn't know when.

From the 1940 census, he learned that one of his uncles owned a barbershop and another worked "shanking" in a shoe factory. He also learned that by 1940, his grandparents had divorced, narrowing down the time frame of their separation, he said.

"I knew that the Archives would be a significant resource because I have so many relatives who lived/are living in the U.S. and the previous information that I had was very minimal," he said in an e-mail. "I knew that the 1940 census would help me to 'fill in some more blanks' and make the story more complete; and it has."

Right now, searching the records is not as easy as tapping in a name and pressing "enter," but even that is changing. Most history hunters currently need an address or street names to narrow their search. Soon, they'll be able to search by name on Ancestry.com and other genealogical websites.

Then, they can browse images of census forms from a specific geographic area, or "enumeration district," to find what they're looking for.

But sites like Ancestry.com are working on making the records searchable by name on a state-by-state basis, a plan two years in the works, said Dan Jones, vice president of global content. Archives.com is working on a similar volunteer effort in collaboration with four other organizations.

Users can already search records from Nevada and Delaware (the two least populous states at the time) by name on Ancestry.com. Soon, they'll be able to explore images of census forms with the help of interactive fields that explain what the columns mean and provide transcriptions of the sometimes blurry handwriting.

The site is also offering access to the records free of charge until 2013, Jones said.

"We're trying to bridge the gap," he said. "Those of us in the family history space forget that looking at a census return with 25 columns and 6 rows is daunting for people who haven't spent a lot of time in genealogy."

For those not looking for a particular person, the records can also reveal a great deal about the history of your home. Jeffrey Landers found out that eight people once rented his one-bedroom shotgun home in the Atlanta neighborhood of Reynoldstown, he said. The head of the house, 25-year-old Lucius Davenport, made $624 in 52 weeks as a truck driver for a lumber company; his wife, Pauline, earned $78.00 in 26 weeks working in a private home. In addition to their two children, they shared the home with Pauline's sister and her son and two others listed as brothers.

"That is 8 people by my count in a 1-bedroom house without indoor plumbing. CRAZY," Landers said in an e-mail.

"What did they do to have privacy? Where did they store things? Did they have things to store? Did the kids go to school? Where?" he continued.

"They were black but Cabbagetown was white. ... Was there a pocket of poor African Americans in the neighborhood? How did they interact? So many questions."

Jannet Walsh of Murdock, Minnesota, lives in the same home her late father and grandparents were in when the family was surveyed for the 1940 census. Poring over the form with her relatives' names prompted Walsh to seek out her last living relative from that era and ask her what life was like back then.

"I just keep on wanting to know more," said Walsh, who submitted information about her family to CNN iReport. "It opens up a conversation between the generations and makes you want to stroll down memory lane while they're still here with us."

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