The following article about the WPA Era was written by Bryan L. Mulcahy, the Reference Librarian at the Fort Myers-Lee County Library.

WPA Poster

The year 1929 was one of the most tragic in American history. The infamous stock market crash coupled with the Great Depression that followed had a terrible impact on many Americans. Herbert Hoover and his successor, Franklin D. Roosevelt formulated many relief programs to attempt to stem the tide of misery and poverty throughout the country. The efforts were met with some success and many failures.

One of the most successful ventures was establishment of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The WPA was the largest project among the many programs developed during the New Deal. For genealogists, one aspect of the WPA has been especially important. The Historical Records Survey under the WPA created many inventories and records which have benefited the entire genealogical research community. Some of the highlights of what was created include:

  • Burial listing in cemeteries
  • Federal and state census indexes
  • Indexes to naturalization records
  • Indexes to Newspapers
  • Inventories of records found in county courthouses
  • Descriptions of manuscripts found in various libraries
  • Place-name guides
  • Inventories of church records including the range of years and content covered by a church’s christening records, and the names of those buried in church cemeteries

Under the auspices of the WPA, workers went to archives, historical societies, public and university libraries and compiled inventories of manuscript collections. They went to courthouses, town halls, offices in large cities, and vital statistics offices and inventoried records. Besides compiling indexes, they also transcribed some of the records they found. The impact on genealogical research in today’s era has been profound. Most researchers have used many of these items at some point in the research process.

Sadly, not everything compiled has survived. Decisions were made by various entities and governmental officials concerning certain records and indexes. Those that were considered of “no value” were destroyed. However, the majority of materials created or indexed during the WPA era survived and the entire genealogical community is grateful for the benefits they have provided.

Bryan L. Mulcahy
Reference Librarian
Fort Myers-Lee County Library