Thursday, April 5, 2012

Searching the 1940 US Census--First Attempt

Have you experienced the 1940 US Census yet? I finally got around to it last night. I have been traveling a lot since Friday. On Friday I flew from Nashville to Burbank to give a speech to the DNA interest group of the Southern California Genealogy Society and sign copies of my Crash Course in Genealogy book. On Sunday I returned to Nashville and prepared for a road trip with my wife to Virginia Beach to spend Easter with two of our grandsons---Alex almost 3 and Devin 6 months. Along the road in Hickory, NC, I met for the first time a 6th cousin who has also travelled through life as David Dowell. He is one year and three days younger than me. As result of this literal coast-to-coast jaunt, the Census did not come to the top of my priorities until last night after the grandsons were in bed.

As you may know the images of the 1940 US Census were released on Monday by the US National Archives (NARA). It will be several months before name indexes will be available for all of the 130 million people who were enumerated. Indexers just got access to the images on Monday along with the rest of us. is claiming to have the first index to these images even though it covers only a tiny fraction of the entire country.

For my own first foray into this fantastic treasure house of family information, I picked an easy search. My maternal grandparents were living in the same small town in 1940 that they had been in 1930. That is important because the census records are now searchable by location. My grandparents were living in Breckenridge, MO. According to the censuses Breckenridge had a population of 828 in 1930 but had shrunk to 728 in 1940. This made Breckenridge an ideal size for my first attempt to find family members.

First I looked up my grandparents in the 1930 Census and discovered that they had lived in Enumeration District 13-1 of Caldwell County during that enumeration. An enumeration district is the area assigned to one census taker. Many of the enumeration districts in the 1940 Census are the same as those for 1930. That was the case for Breckenridge.

When I went to and searched for Enumeration District 13-1 of Caldwell County, I got immediate gratification. Enumeration District 13-1 had 22 images. On the first of those 22 images was a listing for my Uncle Frank Adams and his family. My grandparents were a little more elusive. I didn’t find them until I had scanned down to image 7. I discovered that two other uncles were living with my grandparents along with two of my first-cousins. The cousins are twins who were then nine years old. Their father is listed as widowed. None of this was a particular surprise.

However, a feature of the 1940 Census is information about where individuals were living 5 years previously. My grandparents are listed as living in the “same house.” That was as expected. However, I didn’t know that my Uncle Ray had been living in Cody, Wyoming, in 1935 and that my Uncle Clark; the father of the twins had been living in Ralls County, Missouri. Is that location significant? That is where my grandfather was born in 1870. My grandfather had moved across the state by 1893; but extended family still lived in Ralls County.

Another innovation of the 1940 Census is that a symbol was placed by the person in the family unit who provided the information to the census taker. In the case of the Adams family household of my grandparents, my grandmother was the informant. This is indicated by an "X" with a circle drawn around it following her name.

My next venture into the 1940 Census will try something a little more challenging, but I don’t think I’m ready to try my wife’s ancestors in Chicago yet. What has been your experience with the 1940 Census? 


  1. Dr. Dowell,

    Hello. My name is Brian L. Dowell.

    Philip Dowell Sr. (born 01/01/1677) & Mary (Tydings) Dowell are my 8th Great-Grandparents.

    I have valid information on his parents and the Dowell upline.

    The Mary (Tydings) Dowell side of the family has been traced back to my 47th Great-Grandfather MorMacErc, Fergus, of Dalriada, King of Scots who died in 501 A.D.

    I would very much like to ask you a few questions.

    Thank you,

    Brian L. Dowell

    1. Hi Brian,

      Check your email. I'm eager to hear more. Thank you for contacting me. Philip, Sr., and Mary (Tydings) DOWELL are my sixth great-grandparents.