In search of my 1940 family

We’re a people who want to be connected to the people who came before. The fact that the 1940 Census website crashed yesterday under the crush of 37 million requests shows that we’re looking for something. But what?

The National Archives said today that 1940 census pages are again available for viewing.

“We expected a flood and we got a tsunami,”, the private company that’s hosting the website, said in a statement.

All the confidentiality guaranteed for 72 years has expired, and we’re free to snoop on the neighbors of our past.

Plan on spending plenty of time and try to check your frustration in 2012.

In order to find the records you’re looking for, you have to search for an enumeration district. It’s simple enough: Just enter the state, county, city, and street and browse through the district boundaries listed.

If you still live in the neighborhood, no problem. If you haven’t lived in your hometown since 1978 — bowing — you’ve got to remember the location of streets whose names you’ve long forgotten but can still place if your mind is of a mind to do so. It can be like a walk home from school.

Once you find your enumeration district, you start browsing the forms the enumerator filled out. One form, then another, then another. I could tell the route the census taker was walking — Westminster Hill Road, Phillips Street, Sanborn Street and just as I was about to find the form on my street, the site stalled. Again. The navigation buttons stopped working, so I chose to download all the images of the forms instead.

In order to download the images, you have to pass a “security check.” That is, you have to enter the words shown via the Captcha app.

Tell me: What word is that last one?


This security check will fail many times, so you’ll want to leave extra time.

Once I did, however, it was easy to find my street. But not before I found some fascinating elements of 1940 Fitchburg, Massachusetts.

I knew it was an immigrant city, but the forms made clear how so:


It’s still an immigrant city, although I’m pretty sure today’s census would not list “Eire” in any column as a birthplace.

The factories are mostly gone from town now. But not then. Check out some of the occupations and salaries:


I never did find my 1940 family. The forms got close to where I think they lived then, but then they skipped into another side of town. Maybe the census worker went to lunch and got bored with the people on Ashburnham Street. It happened a lot in my hometown.

Give it a shot, and tell me what you find about your family in the comments section below.

  • I like the last birthplace mentioned there: French Canada. NOT to be confused with the rest of Canada.

    (And yes, I am a French Canadian.)

  • Bob Collins

    My hometown was full of French Canadians. always self identified as french canadians, too.

  • Kassie

    I once had a job as a research assistant at the West Central Historical Research Center. I was the only employee, working 10 hours a week. Anyway, I had the job of entering the 1880 or 1890 Stearns County Census into a database for further analysis. Endless John Johnsons and Ole Olsons and Gustav Muellers and Werner Schmidts. Almost all were white. Almost all were Scandinavian or German. It was endlessly fascinating to me, while at the same time tedious.

    The census is really cool. It won’t be as fun when we get to the years with mail in responses and computerized results. Do they even ask us where we come from anymore?

  • David G

    Wait a few months and try again. A number of genealogical organizations are crowd-sourcing the indexing of all records in order to create a by-name searchable database.

    Each entry being examined by two volunteers and any disagreement being decided by a third.

    I believe they said it would be 6-12 months for that effort to be completed.

  • Bob – it’s as if the bad blood between the French and British continues on through one’s Canadian status. You see, I’m French Canadian.

    But seriously, I believe the reasoning is that we’re proud of our heritage. My family was among the first to settle in New France, and I’m proud that traces of our French Canadian history still linger on in Minnesota, such as Our Lady of Lourdes Church, which once upon a time did mass in French and still makes French meat pies.

    Viva Quebec!

  • Bob Collins

    The French Canadians, and the Greeks, and Italians, and Finns basically built my hometown. And my hometown went on to help build the rest of America. I’ve written about it a few times on my personal blog – here, and here,

  • It’s interesting that it indicates “Eire” as the place of birth. I’ve looked at my grandpa’s family entry (township in Southern MN) and it says my great-great grandparents were born in the Irish Free State (which actually no longer existed in 1940).

  • Josh

    I looked up my family. They were all born in Wisconsin. The is a foreign country to some people, right?