In Search of Your Ancestors?
A column on genealogy by George Farris

May 11, 2012

26. The 1940 U.S. Census

"The actual enumeration shall be made within three years after the first meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent term of 10 years, in such manner as they shall by Law direct."
-- Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution of the United States

The first census of the United States was carried out in 1790 - and, since then, a census has been taken every 10 years - in accordance with the Constitutional requirement. The details of any census are not made available to the public for 72 years after the census is taken. That time period was set many years ago when life expectancy was such that there was not a high probability of finding information about living people at the time of the release of the data. However, with people living considerably longer than used to be the case many living people could find data listed about themselves in the fifteenth census (1930) which was released ten years ago. And after April 1, 2012 many more of us were able to see early records including us in publicly available census data for the sixteenth census taken in 1940.

By the time of the 1940 census, much of the world was already engulfed in war - and the United States was getting closer to direct involvement in what came to be known as World War II. But that was still a little while in the future - and the country was still more concerned about continuing to recover from the great depression than in getting into the war. It was still very much an agricultural economy as it had been in 1930.

All of the population census record images for 1940 were made available on-line by the National Archives & Records Administration on April 2 at However, there was no comprehesive name index for all of the records so, in order to find an individual family, you have to know where they lived. If you can pin that down to a specific "Enumeration District" (ED) then you can search through the images of the pages for that district to find them. Enumeration district maps were also released along with the census images. But if you don't know where they lived in 1940, then it is a difficult search. Family Search (, the on-line genealogy records search site made publicly available by LDS, is working to create a comprehensive index for the 1940 census. They have a large number of volunteers at work on this massive project and, as of this writing, on May 11, 2012, 1940 census records for six states (Colorado, Nebraska, Delaware, New Hampshire, Virginia, and Oregon) are on-line and searchable. A dozen other states have been indexed and are currently being added to the database and all the others states are well underway. So it's probable that the entire census will be indexed and searchable in the very near future.

Even in its unindexed form, the census is quite useful for family history researchers. Usually we are interested in inter-connected families living in the same vicinity - so searching through several pages of records for a specific family can be enlightening in helping understand their neighborhood including who the neighbors were and what they did for a living in 1940. And often you will find inter-related families living nearby.

People doing family history research always look forward to the release of the next census in the series in order to help fill in details about their own family lines. So it's a good time to think again about census data and its use in your own genealogy research. In previous columns (number 6 & number 22 in this series) I have addressed some of the issues involved with the use of census data. The bottom line is that a series of census records about a family can be very valuable in your research - but any one individual record, and any published extraction or transcription of it, are very likely to contain errors in details. And in the 10 year time span between the federal census records many people moved numerous times - so it's necessary to look for other records to find out where people were living and what they were doing in between those once-a-decade records.

Some Examples From 1940

Below is an image of part of a page of the 1940 census from Iowa ED 9-11, Jefferson Township, Bremer County, Iowa, that includes two Farris families. One of the families includes two young boys, Dale - age 6 and George - age 3 - the latter being the current Publisher of Inside Anderson County and the author of this column. All of the neighbors listed in this vicinity were people whom I knew very well when I was growing up in this rural farming area. This record also illustrates one of the points that I've made in the past regarding census data - the enumerator simply records what he or she heard or thought he heard - and may not have double checked the details such as spelling of names. In this case, the enumerator spelled the family name "Ferris" although my family has used the "Farris" spelling for at least 200 years. Census records are never a definitive source for names and ages. These can vary considerably for the same family over a series of three or four or more census records.

On a page in Iowa ED 28-10 for the town of Manchester in Delaware County, Iowa, there is a Meinhard family with two children listed, including "Diana" age 1. (another example of a name mispelled as Diana rather than Dianne) Dianne Meinhard later lived in several places in Iowa and South Dakota and ended up as a student at Iowa State University where I met her in 1956. We've now been married for 53 years.

Another group of records of interest to us was found in Tennessee ED 86-17 in Civil District 12 for the Lillydale community just outside Erwin in Unicoi County, Tennessee. This record includes several Helton and Gilbert families and other inter-related families living in the same area. One of these families was listed as Earnest and Beatrice Helton, both age 22 and married for less than two years at that time. They had no children in 1940 - but would later have three children, one of whom, Olivia Jean Helton, spent the first eight years of her life in that community and knew all of these people - and is now the Editor of Inside Anderson County. This record also contains a similar error in the incorrect spelling of "Ernest."

Of more direct interest to our readers are the 1940 records for Anderson County, Tennessee - enumeration districts 1-1 through 1-21. Of particular interest to us were ED 1-14 for Civil District 9 and part of ED 1-13 for Civil District 8 of Anderson County. ED 1-14 included the unincorporated community of Scarboro plus the residents living throughout the district on Edgemoor Road, Clinch River Road, Bethel Valley Road, Park Road, Bear Creek Road, Johnson Road, Mt. Vernon Road, and Robertsville Road. The schedules for ED 1-13 do not include the names of the roads, just the postal addresses as RFD Oliver Springs or Clinton. But the map for the district shows that these pages include what is now part of Oak Ridge, including the communities of Elza and Lupton Crossroads (on what is now Emory Valley Road in Oak Ridge) and Robertsville. One of the families on page 6A is an Irwin family including a 9 year old son "Rice" who would later become Superintendant of Anderson County Schools, and well known throughout the area as John Rice Irwin the founder of the Museum of Appalachia. None of the families in this primarily rural farming community of 1940 was aware at that time that within two years they would all be summarily uprooted and moved out of the area to make room for the Manhattan Project facilities that were to define Oak Ridge. Similarly, enumeration district 73-10 comprising Civil District number 2 of Roane County, including the Wheat community, lists all the residents in 1940 who would soon be removed, along with Wheat itself, to make room for Manhattan Project facilities.

And out in Smith County, Tennessee, in ED 80-17 for Civil District 15 there is the family of Norman and Ruth Thomas listed in 1940 including a daughter shown in the census as "Joice J." age 7. A few miles south in Dekalb County ED 21-15 for the 12th Civil District there is the family of Haden and Alta Mai Evans including a 9 year old son listed as W. Haden Evans.

Several years later, Hayden Evans and Joyce Thomas met when they were both students at Gordonsville High School. They were high school sweethearts for several years - but attended different colleges and drifted apart. Hayden spent a career in the military, then as a journalist and banker - ultimately ending up in Clinton, Tennessee, where he has lived for many years. Both he and Joyce had separate long-term marriages but both of their spouses ultimately died of cancer. After the death of his wife about 10 years ago, Hayden got reacquainted with old friends and relatives back in DeKalb and Smith Counties and, through a mutual friend, found that Joyce was back living in the area and had also lost her husband to cancer. The rest, as they say, is history. Joyce and Hayden got back together and were finally married after a separation of over 50 years. Hayden summarized their story in a Valentine's Day column in Inside Anderson County several years ago. They are well known and loved by many residents of Clinton and Anderson County.

Maybe there are some clues or reminders regarding your own family waiting for you to find them in the pages of the 1940 census ...

Previous Columns in this series

1. Beginning your search
2. "Source Data"
3. More About Data Sources
4. Additional Data Sources
5. LDS and Data From Other Countries
6. Census Records
7. Military Records
8. Land Records
9. More About Land Records
10. Land Records as a Source of Family Information
11. Wills and Probate Records as Sources of Family Information
12. Biographies, Obituaries, Old Newspapers, and Family Lore
13. Sharing Family History Research
14. Some Genealogy Web Sites to Use With Caution
15. Genealogy & Local History
16. Tracking One Specific Ancestor
17. What Next?
18. Tracking One Specific Ancestor - 2
19. Importance of Family Groups in Tracking Ancestors
20. Two new on-line genealogy research tools
21. Some books for family history researchers
22. Census time again
23. A tale of the professor and the horse thief
24. Family artifacts, mementos, letters, etc. as a source of genealogy information
25. "Find A Grave" - Another potentially useful genealogy research tool

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