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Thanks for the boondoggle

Yeah, it probably was a boondoggle, one that would have a portion of today’s population howling about government waste and deficit spending. But here at The Legal Genealogist, all there is — all there could be — is deep abiding gratitude at the bureaucratic boondoggle known as the Works Progress Administration.

WPA photo, Arizona child

First established under and funded by the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935,1 its work wasn’t nearly done when, 74 years ago today — on 21 June 1938 — President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed into law the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 19382 that allowed the WPA to continue — and to create some of the most amazing genealogical resources that will ever exist.

Most of us probably know that the Works Progress Administration (“WPA”) was a massive federal project to put people to work in the depths of the Great Depression. It employed millions of Americans on public projects sponsored by federal, state, or local agencies, and as World War II loomed and then began, on defense and even war-related projects.3

And in the course of that effort to put people to work, the WPA hired teachers, historians, clerical workers, writers and photographers to document America as it was and to survey what it had been.

There are three major results of the WPA’s works for which today’s genealogists can be forever grateful.

First, the Historical Records Survey produced a wide variety of inventories of available vital records, plus bibliographies, cemetery and newspaper indexes. It produced inventories of manuscript collections in archives, historical societies and libraries, public and private. It inventoried church records. It produced indexes to censuses and naturalization records. It produced place-name guides. And these records are widely available around the country and on microfilm through the Family History Library.

You want to know about changes in street names in New Orleans between 1852 and 1938? There’s a typewritten volume, Alphabetical Index of Changes in Street Names, Old and New Period 1852 to Current Date, Dec. 1st 1938, prepared by the WPA that’s now online at the Louisiana Division of the New Orleans Public Library.

Want an index to the Blount County, Tennessee, Burial Records? One was prepared by the WPA — it’s in the Tennessee State Library & Archives.

How about an index to birth records from Starke County, Indiana, from 1894-1938? It’s there in the Indiana State Library. Along with the WPA-prepared index to marriage records, 1896-1938, and index to marriage transcripts, 1899-1938.

Want to know what records existed — and exist — in Oklahoma? There’s a catalog of American Indian records found at the Oklahoma Historical Society, inventories of federal documents in the Veterans Administration, post offices, relief agencies, and federal courts, inventories of records in all seventy-seven counties and of municipal records, church archives and private collections within the state — and most of the records of what was done are located in the Research Division of the Oklahoma Historical Society.4

In Missouri, there are now 302 linear feet of records, or 817 rolls of microfilm of the Historic Records Survey — correspondence, essays, forms, instructions, lists, publications, reports, research material, and notes — at the State Historical Society.5

In Texas, the Historical Records Survey handled “the renovation and rearrangement of more than ten million documents and 362,452 volumes; the transcription of 217,323 pages of records dating from 1731; the preparation of new name or subject indices to 1,169,762 property records and name indices to over four million birth, death, and marriage records; the preparation of new name indices to supplement the original recordings of 928,900 district and county court records; and the inventory of probate case papers for 392,450 estates as a means of assisting interested persons in finding these valuable documents.”6

There are the folks who did the soundex indexing of the 1920 census, undertaken as a Historical Records Survey project of the WPA in New York City. Literally thousands of WPA workers were assigned to that project starting in 1938; it wasn’t finished until 1940.7

But that’s not all genealogists can thank the WPA for. There’s also the Federal Writers’ Project. It may be best known for having produced a series of guide books of the states now known as the American Guide Series. The U.S. Senate has a description of the series online, but focusing on the guides barely begins to do the work of the Federal Writers’ Project justice. In addition to the guide books, there were local histories produced, compilations of folklore, books and pamphlets for children and adults and — best of all — all kinds of interview reports.

Want to know where James H. Armstrong of Ogalalla, Nebraska, was born in 1828? Or what happened to the crops there before they could be harvested in 1887? Check out the interview with his daughter, Ada Case, who was interviewed 17 November 1938.8

How about Mr. and Mrs. Charles Gaston of Ogalalla? Check out the 1938 interview with Mrs. Gaston. You’ll discover that he was born 2 May 1859, at Saskatchawan, Canada, and came to Keith County in 1884. She was born 15 November 1869 at La Port Indiana. They were married at Grant Nebraska, 1888, moved to Happy Hollow and had six children: John Franklin in 1892; Isac Iver, 1894; Katherine Marjria, 1896; Charles Adam, 1890; Kenneth Lloyd, 1902; and Dicy Dorritt, 1906. Most of their life story is there.9

The Slave Narratives may be the most compelling of the oral histories. There are 17 volumes in the series compiled by the WPA entitled Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves. And they’re online at the Library of Congress’ American Memory Project in a collection called Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938.

Mrs. John High of Arkansas was interviewed in 1938 and told of Emiline Waddell, former slave of the L.W. Waddell family, born in 1826 in Rabun County, Georgia, a slave of Claybourne Waddell. She was reportedly born a deaf mute but had hearing and speech restored when lightning struck a tree under which she was standing.10

Addie Vinson of Athens, Georgia, told of her father Peter being bought from Sam Brightwell by Ike Vinson. Her father’s parents were Grandma Nancy and Grandpa Jacob, slaves of Obe Jackson. And she spoke of her life and the life of other slaves, such as the way the overseer beat the slaves; once her uncle was beaten so badly he couldn’t work for a week.11

And even that’s not all to thank the WPA for. There are also the photographs. Hundreds and hundreds available through the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalog. Thousands more available at the National Archives. Thousands more available through state and local archives.12 Thousands more than that available through online sources such as the New Deal Photo Gallery at the New Deal Network of Columbia University.

Oh the WPA may have been a boondoggle, all right. And the money authorized 74 years ago today was definitely deficit spending.

But oh boy … where would we be without it?


  1. 49 Stat. 115.
  2. 52 Stat. 809.
  3. See generally Final Report on the WPA Program 1935-1943 (Washington, D.C. : Government Printing Office, 1947); digital images, Library of Congress Digital Collections ( : accessed 20 Jun 2012). See also Wikipedia (, “Works Progress Administration,” rev. 13 Jun 2012.
  4. Historical Records Survey,” Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History & Culture, Oklahoma Historical Society ( : accessed 20 Jun 2012).
  5. U.S. Work Projects Administration, Historical Records Survey, Missouri, 1935-1942 (C3551), State Historical Society of Missouri ( : accessed 20 Jun 2012).
  6. Texas State Historical Association, Handbook of Texas Online, “Texas Historical Records Survey,” ( : accessed 20 Jun 2012).
  7. Claire Prechtel-Kluskens, “The WPA Census Soundexing Projects,” Prologue Magazine, Spring 2002, Vol. 34, No. 1; online, ( : accessed 20 Jun 2012).
  8. Ada Case, interview, 17 Nov 1938; transcript and digital images, “American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1940,” Library of Congress, American Memory ( : accessed 20 Jun 2012).
  9. Ibid., Mrs. Charles Gaston, interview 5 Sep 1938.
  10. Mrs. John G. High, interview, 20 Oct 1938; transcript and digital images, “Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938,” Library of Congress, American Memory ( : accessed 20 Jun 2012).
  11. Ibid., Addie Vinson, interview, 23 Aug 1938.
  12. See e.g. “Work(s) Progress Administration Photograph Collection at the Colorado State Archives,” Colorado State Archives ( : accessed 20 Jun 2012).
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