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Back to Basics: WPA Historical Records Survey
By Barbara McKinlay

In 1935, during the Depression, the Works Progress Administration was formed to give work to unemployed people. Genealogists can be eternally grateful for some of the things that they did. Using out-of-work teachers, historians, researchers, and clerical workers, they attempted to compile a list of available vital records in the United States. Forty states participated. Those that did not included Alaska (which was not yet a state), South Carolina, and Vermont.

Inventories or guides to vital records were published for various counties, cities, and towns. The purpose was to try to organize historical materials, especially unpublished government documents and records that are basic to local governments, and also to provide data of historical interest.

The location of these records was published in "WPA List of Vital Statistical Records," which was issued in 1943. SCGS has a copy of that list, as well as a later publication that not only shows the list but also shows where many of them are located. UCLA is a repository for some of the records.

As an example, California has the following listed.

  • Guide to Church Vital Records in California: Alameda and San Francisco Counties: Six Denominations (May 1942)
  • Guide to Public Vital Statistics Records in California: Vol. 1: Birth Records (June 1941) Vol. 2: Death Records (July 1941)
Some of the guides are things that you would not expect to find. The state of Virginia has these two listings:
  • Index to Marriage Notices in the Southern Churchman 1835-1941.
  • Guide to the Manuscript Collections of the Virginia Baptist Historical Society
  • Index to the Obituary Notices in the Religious Herald, Richmond, VA. 1828-1938.

Typically, a guide for church records might contain the name and address of the institution, ethnic orientation, and dates for each type of record. If other congregations were included, it would be noted.

Another interesting project they undertook was to photocopy pre-1906 naturalization records and to index them. The project covered 1787-1906, but only the states of Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island were completed. These photocopies are in the National Archives with a card index.

Still another project was an index to Chicago deaths, 1871-1933. This compilation, which is very valuable, is available through the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, and its branches.

Along with all of this, the workers managed to create the Soundex indexes to the 1880, 1900, 1910, and 1920 censuses, and even took time to conduct interviews of ex-slaves.

Now, that's the good news. The bad news is that this was all done over 60 years ago; and in the interim many of these guides and records have been moved, often for lack of storage space. Usually a letter to the county clerk or the local historical society will turn up the information you are seeking.

REFERENCES

  • Eakle and Cerny: The Source. Ancestry Publishing Co., Salt Lake City, Utah. 1984.
  • Greenwood, Va. D.: The Researchers Guide to American Genealogy, Genealogical Publishing Co., Baltimore; 1978.
  • Pfeifferr, Laura S.: Hidden Sources, Ancestry Publishing Co.; Oren, Utah. 2000.

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