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Just 35 more days to the 1940 census…

I was a little distracted Saturday when I usually post about my own family, so I’m going to do a little bit of catching up here. And what I wanted to say was that, most of the time, when I think about what I do in my own research for my own family, I don’t think of myself with the label “genealogist.” I think of myself, instead, with the label “family historian.” Or “storyteller.” Or “lorekeeper.” Or 21st century not-very-Irish-but-what-the-heck “seanchaí”1 of the clan.

And I can’t wait to see what pieces of our family story are waiting to be found in the 1940 census. Just 35 more days until the records are released.2 35 more days!

I wrote a week ago about my hopes of finding clues in that census to help a DNA cousin find his father somewhere in my father’s extended Chicago family. Just one single car mechanic is all I want to find there.

I want to see where my Uncle Billy, my mother’s oldest brother, was enumerated in 1940. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy at Dallas, Texas, nine days after the census enumeration date.3 Was he already in Dallas? Still at home? Somewhere else?

I want to see where my paternal grandparents were living. I know it was in Chicago, but like many European immigrants, they thought nothing of moving once a year to a new and better apartment. My father told stories of coming home from school and finding a note on the door giving him the new address. So where were they in 1940 — and in 1935? That question — where they lived in 1935 — was a new question on the 1940 census.4

I want to see where — and how many times — my father shows up on that census. He was a student at what was then called the Armour Institute and, that year, would become the Illinois Institute of Technology when it merged with the Lewis Institute.5 I don’t know if he was living at home or on campus, but that census should give me the answer. Because the enumerators were told to list absent members of the household as well as those living at home,6 if he was on campus, he could be listed twice.

And I want to see what both of my grandfathers were doing for a living in 1940. The country was on its way out of the Depression but both families had been hard hit. One had been a clerk in an auto shop in 1930,7 the other a coal worker.8 What changes will I find in this census?

In some cases, it will simply be sweet to see people making their first appearances in the census. This past Saturday was my Uncle Sonny’s 72nd birthday. (Happy belated birthday, Sonny George! Which reminds me, speaking of family lore, how did you get the nickname Sonny George anyway?) Because he was born before 1 April 1940,9 he should be listed, for the very first time, in the household of his parents in West Virginia. Four of my mother’s younger brothers and sisters were born between 1930 and 1940. Carol, Jerry, Marianne and Mike should all be making their first appearances in the census, in Midland, Texas, in my grandparents’ household. All told, I have more than 100 people in my research database born between 1930 and 1940 who should be in the census for the first time. Sweet!

But there will be a big dose of bittersweet as well. All four of my grandparents and both of my parents should be found on that census, and none of them is alive today.10 My mother’s little brother Donald, a newborn at the time of the 1930 census and so listed there simply as “# Six,”11 didn’t survive to the 1940 census.12 And it will be particularly bittersweet to see the oldest of all of my generation, my first cousin Bobette, make her first appearance in that census. She was born 31 Jan 1940… and we lost her to cancer last August.13

Even with the bittersweet, that census will be a treasure. I’m so looking forward to it that, as you can see, I signed up as a 1940 census ambassador, to help spread the word about the site where we’ll find the images on 2 April 2012. There won’t be any index ready that day — that task is up to us. Join in — it’s easy. You can download the indexing software here. If we all pitch in together, we could have a complete index before the end of this year! (I’m gonna do it — that way I won’t end up with my great grandfather Martin Cottrell indexed as “Martha Cutlock”14 this time!)

And I’m doing what I can to prepare for using that census in my own research. There’s a great overview page here at the National Archives website to help get ready, with specific features such as a general overview of the 1940 census (here), a guide to preparing for the census (here), a whole set of finding aids (here), video guides to what enumerators were told in 1940 (here) and more.

Just 35 more days…


  1. Wikipedia (, “seanchaí,” rev. 27 Feb 2011.
  2. Federal law restricts access to the census for 72 years. See 92 Stat. 915; Public Law 95-416; October 5, 1978 ( : accessed 18 Feb 2012).
  3. “CWO Billy Cottrell Retires from Navy,” undated clipping, November 1969, from unidentified newspaper; Cottrell Family Papers, digital copy in possession of Judy G. Russell, New Jersey.
  4. Questions Asked on the 1940 Census,” 1940 Federal Population Census, Part I: General Information, National Archives, ( : accessed 23 Feb 2012).
  5. “The Sermon and the Institute,” About IIT: History, Illinois Institute of Technology ( : accessed 22 Feb 2012).
  6. NARA’s “Questions Asked on the 1940 Census.”
  7. 1930 U.S. census, Midland County, Texas, Midland City, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 2, p. 247A (stamped), dwelling 287, family 317, Clay R. Cottrell; digital image, ( : accessed 13 Jan 2012); citing National Archive microfilm publication T626, roll 2376. Note that the family is wrongly indexed by Ancestry as “Cathell.”
  8. 1930 U.S. census, Cook County, Chicago, Illinois, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 16-598, p. 18B (penned), dwelling 155, family 386, Hugo E. Geissler household; digital image, ( : accessed 10 Feb 2012); citing National Archive microfilm publication T626, roll 441.
  9. The enumeration date for the 1940 census was 1 April. NARA’s “Questions Asked on the 1940 Census.”
  10. Virginia Department of Health, Certificate of Death, state file no. 95-011808, Opal Robertson Cottrell (1995); Division of Vital Records, Richmond. Ibid., state file no. 70-026729, Clay Rex Cottrell (1970). Ibid., state file no. 99-018720, Hazel Cottrell Geissler (1994). Illinois Department of Public Health, Certificate of Death, no. 1145, Hugo Ernst Geissler (1945); Division of Vital Statistics, Springfield. Ibid., no. 12011, Marie Nuckel Geissler (1947). Utah Department of Health, Death Certificate, no. 143-94-000152, Hugo H. Geissler (1994); Office of Vital Records and Statistics, Salt Lake City.
  11. 1930 U.S. census, Midland Co., Tex., Midland City, pop. sched., ED 2, p. 247A (stamped), dwell. 287, fam. 317, “# Six” Cottrell.
  12. Texas Department of Health, death certificate no. 35631, Donald Harris Cottrell (1930); Bureau of Vital Statistics, Austin.
  13. Obituary, Bobette Staples Richardson, The (Charlottesville, Va.) Daily Progress, 18 August 2011; online version at ( : accessed 22 Feb 2012).
  14. 1920 U.S. census, Geneva County, Alabama, Hartford, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 105, p. 78-B (stamped), sheet 9-B (penned), dwelling 176, family 184, Martin G. Cottrel; digital image, ( : accessed 26 Feb 2012); citing National Archive microfilm publication T625, roll 16 (indexed 2003 as “Martha G. Cutlock”, 2012 as “Martin G. Cutlock”).
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