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Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Uncle Sam yourself. You might be amazed at what you find.

The National Archives and Records Administration yesterday released individual records from the 1940 Census. Packaged together with fascinating extras, such as videos from that time period and visualization tools allowing you to better understand population changes, this online data set provides users with a wealth of historical information. It might also provide you with a detailed snapshot of your ancestors’ lives 72 years ago

I took a look at the records for my mother’s kin – the McDonalds. Sadly, the 1940 census provided a last glimpse at an intact family. Months after the census was taken in April of 1940, my grandfather, James, died. He left behind his wife, Anna, and their four children, among them my 13-year old mother.

The census data provided me with some primary source verification for tales I heard as a child. I recall my mom telling me that her mother had to stand in bread lines as the McDonalds, like so many families, struggled during the Depression. Indeed, the 1940 census data shows that my grandfather reported no income from his job as a cotton salesman during the previous year. With her husband dead and the family in difficult financial straits, my grandmother became the head of the household.

The census data doesn't tell what came after. Anna McDonald saw two sons off to war - one served with the Army in France and another with the Navy in the Pacific during World War II. She welcomed both home. Her eldest daughter went overseas during the war as well, teaching the children of servicemen. My mother stayed in Massachusetts, finished high school and went to work as a telephone operator. All four of Anna's children eventually married. Between them, they gave her 12 grandchildren. There were better days, and many opportunities to make wonderful family memories. And while the numbers released yesterday don't describe those good times, the 1940 census helps provide insight into the strength she possessed that saw her, and her family, through the bad times.

Getting this information wasn't without difficulty. Interest in the 1940 census was so great yesterday that the millions of hits to the National Archives website crashed the system.  This morning things were working much more smoothly. Once on the site, you'll likely have to do a bit of exploring to find what you're looking for. As the 1940 Census has no names index, you have to first find the enumeration district in which your ancestor resided. If you have a specific street address, or even a town, that isn’t a difficult search as The 1940 Census page provides clear directions and online tools for tracking down that data.

The image at top  is a family photograph showing my grandmother, Anna, surrounded by her family. My mother, Mary, now 84, is the second from the right. The image below comes from the National Archives and shows the page of census data that tells the McDonalds' story.