The United States Census of 1940 - Your Gateway To The Past

For genealogists, we are guilty of telling newcomers to family research, "Start looking in the Census Records." It's second nature to us, but it's not always to someone who has never seen a document from the past.

Most of us are older in age and it's not unusual that our parents are in the more recent documents. It makes it much easier than the younger generations looking for their grandparents or great-grandparents.

If you are reading this writing, taking the first step towards tracing your family tree, and not sure where to start, please allow me to help you with one of the first steps.

In the United States, what you're trying to achieve is a parent, grandparent, or great-grandparent born before 1940 (or the very first months of 1940). 1940 is the last United States Federal Census that is available for public display.

You can start with something as simple as a pen and tablet. Starting without yourself, write down your full name, birthdate (DOB), and place of birth. Then, do the same for your parents (or as much as you know), and if there is a death date (DOD) and place, write that down as well. Don't worry if you don't know the exact dates and/or locations. Most of us do research without much more than a name or surname.

When you feel you may have a name from early 1940 and before, access www.familysearch.org, using their free search engine. You may have to open a free account, but you will gather a wealth of information.

Under SEARCH and then, RECORDS, type in the information you may know. In the case of genealogy search engines, less can be more. If you get too specific, and the Census Taker did not put that information down on the records, you may not find your ancestor. Put in first and last name, the state (if you know it), and a range of birth years. Note: Census records are notorious for having the wrong birth year, so always put in a five year spread


Hit the search button at the bottom of the screen, and see what you receive. Each entry will show you where the information is being pulled from (birth records, census records, etc.), but not all these people will be your ancestor. You may have to access several to get an idea who belongs to you.

There is a faster way of discovering the census of 1940 from the results. Look at the top of the results screen you're observing, and find the tab that says "Collections". Under Collections, see if you find the link that states Census of 1940. By clicking that link, it will show you only records from the Census of 1940.


From there, you will be able to VIEW the transcripted information and also the actual documents. The transcripted information will not have as much information as the actual document (i.e. addresses, value of property, etc.), so be sure to look at both. 

Should you find the family you desire, you are on your way to putting the puzzle pieces together. You'll may discover siblings, grandparents living in their home, nieces and nephews, and boarders. You'll discover names, nicknames, and if you didn't have a birth year before now, you'll have an estimate by subtracting their age from 1940. Birth years are not always correct, so don't take it as an absolute.

How you wish to collect your information (either on your tablet or through a personal software package) will be up to you as you proceed. Unless you see the document, do not trust other peoples' family tree information as so much of it nowadays is incorrect.


You are on your way. Follow the same procedure as above for the Census of 1930, 1920, etc. Be sure the family members match so that you have the correct families, and above all, enjoy the journey! 

Comments