Saturday, March 17, 2012

Finding Mr. Right in 1940

This is Part II of a two-part introduction to the 1940 Federal Census release, which will take place on Apr. 2.

A certain N.H. Hilyard from San Angelo, in 1940, would not hear of participating in the federal census that has occurred every 10 years.

“Uncle Sam never counted me and I never caught a census enumerator making a nose count,” the 65-year-old told a reporter.

He’s just the sort of ancestor that most genealogists seem to have encountered in their historical research.

The maddening sort!

Mr. Hilyard’s brag brought a “special visit” from a census supervisor who, presumably, made sure that Hilyard’s name, age, household information were all recorded for official government business – establishing Congressional representation and (in those years following the Great Depression) surveying economic data across the nation.

The genealogist’s problem today is to find Mr. Hilyard and other ancestor’s on that federal census.  The census records, which have been closed for 72 years, will be opened to the public for the first time on April 2. (As an aside, note that no microfilm will be released by the government – all data will be digital and on-line.)

It’s a genealogist’s heyday.  Or more like “hay”-day, as in “needle-in-a-stack-of-hay.”  The point here is that all 138 million records will be released without an index.

So, to find Mr. Hilyard or your ancestor in 1940, family historians must go to one of the geographical groupings and read through the handwritten census schedule line by line.  Eye-wearying work, indeed, but it is the only way to locate a family until an index is produced.

Backing up a step, the researcher has to know which of these geographical areas, called “enumeration district” is the right one to scour. For that, we zero in on any known address of our ancestor.

Common tools to find old addresses are phone and community directories, old family letters, backs of photographs, inside covers of old family books and Bibles, tax records, property records, old newspaper reports or the previous federal census (the 1930).

That’s where N.H. Hilyard, despite his boast that he was never caught by the nose-counters is found! In 1930, his household address is recorded, and genealogists today can use that address to cross-reference and find the right enumeration district.

It will still be a line-by-line search from there to find him on the 1940 census, but it’s a start.

The premiere FREE cross-reference tools are located at  The census records will be available, also free, on and The official National Archives website has good up-to-date information as well as training:

Comments and questions to “Ask the Ancestors,” are encouraged. Lisa McKinney will lead a workshop on “Preparing for 1940” at the Van Zandt County Library in Canton on March 24 at 2 p.m. Contact her at for more information.

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