Memories and Mysteries Revealed in the 1940 Census

This screenshot shows the 1940 Census website.

If you ask genealogists how they became interested in family history research, many will cite specific childhood memories. Others will point to hints of long-lost family secrets or to a total void of any information. All cite a need to know who they are and where they came from.

My interest in history began with the stories my grandparents and their siblings related at family gatherings. Both sides of my family had story tellers. My Granddaddy Smith always would relate a few requested stories, some of questionable authenticity, before drifting off for his afternoon nap.

Then the focus would shift to my grandmother pulling out photographs and other family keepsakes and sharing more object-centered stories about our family’s history. On my dad’s side, the pendulum often swung between my great uncle telling riveting stories that always turned out to be tall tales in the last sentence, and my grandpa recounting equally elaborate stories drawn directly from the humors of their sometimes difficult lives.

Some families just don’t have this oral tradition. Others may need to confirm and build on the vague images of their past. The first digital release of the 1940 US Census gives everyone with ancestors in the United States at that time an opportunity to start tracing their history, to fill in the blanks, to see a snapshot of their activities between the Great Depression and World War II.

My plan is to work with the hopefully thousands of volunteers helping to create a free index of the Missouri portion at the 1940 US Census Community Project . But before I start, I am going to search for my parents on their first census. The other relatives will just have to wait until the index is complete, but I will dutifully scroll through a couple of counties’ records if I have to before settling down to help create the indices.  I know the indices are the key to future easy searches, but I just won’t be able to resist.

The 1940 Census  images will be available in Missouri starting 8 a.m. on April 2.

Enjoy the search! Treasure the finds! Help index if you can.

Written by John Dougan, Missouri State Archives