The WPA Era and its Impact on Genealogical Research

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.

5/8/2010
Bryan L. Mulcahy
Reference Librarian
Fort Myers-Lee County Library

Author: Leland Meitzler

Leland K. Meitzler founded Heritage Quest in 1985, and has worked as Managing Editor of both Heritage Quest Magazine and The Genealogical Helper. He currently operates Family Roots Publishing Company (www.FamilyRootsPublishing.com), writes daily at GenealogyBlog.com, writes the weekly Genealogy Newsline, conducts the annual Salt Lake Christmas Tour to the Family History Library, and speaks nationally, having given over 2000 lectures since 1983.

2 thoughts on “The WPA Era and its Impact on Genealogical Research”

  1. How can a researcher locate WPA employment records? My Father was listed as a WPA employee in New York in a U. S. Federal Census.

  2. The National Civilian Personnel Records Center houses the very few personnel records for former Works Progress Administration (WPA) employees that are extant today. If your ancestor does happen to be listed, the record will most likely only list only the name of the person and the Official Project (O.P.) number of the project. However, it can’t hurt to write to this facility to obtain a copy of the record, if one exists. If the employee is still living, he or she must sign the record request. Otherwise, send a copy of the person’s death certificate along with your request. Write to: National Archives Records Administration; National Civilian Personnel Records Center; 111 Winnebago St.; St. Louis, Missouri 63118-4199; 314-538-4271.

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