The WPA and Its Impact on Family History
What do the Bryce Canyon Airport Hangar in Bryce Canyon, Utah, the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, California, and the Norfolk Botanical Garden in Norfok, Virginia, all have in common? They are all Works Progress Administration (WPA) projects, created to ease the financial burdens of millions of unemployed Americans affected by the Great Depression. But did you know this initiative also included projects that have greatly impacted family history research?
In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order creating the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The WPA was just one of many Great Depression relief programs that put unemployed Americans (mostly men) to work building roads, bridges, schools, playgrounds, post offices, hospitals, dams, and other resources still in use today. The projects went beyond basic infrastructure. Unemployed creative arts and academic professionals such as writers, actors, musicians, and painters were given jobs writing and producing plays or creating murals designed to celebrate American heritage, among other tasks.
One significant program under this umbrella was Federal Project Number One, which had five different focuses: Federal Art Project, Federal Music Project, Federal Theater Project, Federal Writer’s Project, and Historical Records Survey. While all of these programs served noble purposes and helped the country recover, the Historical Records Survey is the program of most interest to genealogists.
The Historical Records Survey was the smallest endeavor of Federal Project Number One, but its impact on the field of genealogy is one of the greatest. Its purpose was to identify, collect, and conserve the United States’ historical records.
WPA employees visited courthouses, archives, historical societies, town halls, vital statistics offices, and public and university libraries to compile and analyze inventories of state and county records, manuscript collections, newspapers and archives. Why? “To conduct a national records survey consisting of guides to every state’s manuscript collections and various federal records, plus a coast-to-coast master index of the collections.” They created indexes of these collections and in some cases even transcribed them. You may have used records created by the WPA without even knowing it. Some of the most useful include:
- Federal and state census indexes
- Indexes to vital records (births, marriages, and deaths)
- Burial listings of cemeteries
- Indexes of naturalization, military, and school records
- Indexes to newspapers
- Inventories of records located in county courthouses
- Historical narratives of slaves, immigrants, Native Americans and other groups as part of the American Folklore Project
While not all states participated or were included, many Americans saw value in continuing these efforts beyond simple economic recovery. When the WPA project was terminated in 1943, many state historical societies and archives picked up where the government left off, creating microfilms of their records and making them available for use. Unfortunately, not all were cared for properly and some were even intentionally destroyed in later years. Thankfully, with the rise of the internet, many of the surviving indexes are now making their way online.
Where to find WPA-created records
No one single repository exists for all the records and indexes created by the WPA. Historical and genealogical societies and local history societies have many of these materials in their collections, though the quantity varies depending on the size of the repository and collection. Some WPA collections are difficult to locate because they weren’t always cataloged as WPA-created works. Some search strategies for finding these materials are:
- By state or jurisdiction in library catalogs by title or keyword subject searches using the search terms “(Name of Jurisdiction) –Works Project Administration or Works Progress Administration”
For example, typing “Tennessee WPA” in the “keyword” search box in the Family History Library catalog at FamilySearch.org yielded these results:
- Google – search for state name and WPA records in search box
- State and county historical societies – check their website and resources in the state you are conducting research
- Local libraries as well as major genealogical research facilities such as:
The WPA Historical Records Survey produced a large amount of information about records that may have otherwise been lost. Family historians continue to benefit from the diligence and work of those employed during the recovery from a dark period of U.S. history. There is a wealth of information ranging from finding aides to family history narratives that, when added to the genealogist’s arsenal of tools, can help to dig deeper in his family history. Spend some time browsing online repositories in the area of the United States in which your ancestors lived, and see what WPA records were created that might enhance your family history research.
If you are interested in learning more about your family history — whether you’re just interested in names, dates, and places, or if you want to add historical details and context to their lives — the experts at Legacy Tree Genealogists are here to help! Contact us today for a free consultation.
History, “1933 FDR Creates the WPA,” This Day in History, www.history.com, accessed March 2017.
Wikipedia, “Works Progress Administration,” https://en.wikipedia.org, accessed March 2017.
National Archives, “Records of the Work Projects Administration [WPA],” https://www.archives.gov, accessed March 2017.
Bryan L. Mulcahy, “Works Progress Administration (WPA) Historical Records Survey,” 14 March 2011, http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~flmgs/articles/Works_Projects_AdministrationMarch2011_BM.pdf, accessed April 2017.
Paula Stuart-Warren, “Good Works: WPA Projects,” Family Tree Magazine, 3 November 2009, www.familytreemagazine.com, accessed March 2017.