Good Works: Finding State Indexes and Inventories

By Paula Stuart-Warren Premium

Hide and seek

As funding dried up and the need for the WPA disappeared during World War II, the HRS ended with in-progress inventories unfinished and surveys unpublished. Not all the work survived: According to Loretta L. Hefner’s The WPA Historical Records Survey: A Guide to the Unpublished Inventories, Indexes and Transcripts (Society of American Archivists), a pile of Maine’s WPA records were (gasp!) “dumped from a wharf into Casco Bay.” Apparently, no repository would accept them.

But don’t despair — much of WPA’s hard work survives. Maine has 33 surveys, most housed at the Maine Historical Society <> in Portland. The North Star State’s WPA documents occupy nearly 350 boxes at the Minnesota History Center <>. Peruse them, and you’ll find manuscripts for published books, such as Minnesotans in the Civil and Indian Wars: An Index to the Rosters in Minnesota in the Civil and Indian Wars, 1861-1865 (Minnesota Historical Society), plus inventories that never made it into print.

The federal government administered WPA programs from Washington, DC, as well as from regional, state and district offices. That means WPA products are sprinkled throughout various archives and cataloged under a medley of titles. Materials for one state may be split among repositories. And although the WPA never fully achieved its goal to distribute copies of its inventories throughout the country, plenty of libraries have publications relating to other states. You might not think, for example, that the Ohio Historical Society library <> would have WPA publications from states such as Alabama, Florida, Michigan, New Jersey and West Virginia — but it does.

Search the catalogs of historical societies, state archives, state libraries, and large public and university libraries by entering terms such as wpa, works progress administration, work projects administration and historical records survey as the author or keywords. Try county archives inventory or cemetery survey as a search subject.

You can see most of the FHL’s WPA holdings by using the online catalog at < fhlc.asp>. Type work projects administration into the Author field. You might find more titles if you do a place search for the state or county, then click on the topic Archives and Libraries — Inventories, Registers, Catalogs.

You’ll also want to investigate the large collections of the Daughters of the American Revolution <> and Indiana’s Allen County Public Library. Then see the Cyndi’s List WPA links <> and the book CheckList of Historical Records Survey Publications by Sargent B. Child and Dorothy P. Holmes (Clearfield Co.). Use Hefner’s book, available at large libraries, to locate unpublished WPA documents.

Most WPA workers had some degree of training and education, but as you know, reading old handwriting and interpreting what’s in a record takes practice. Not all the transcriptions are correct, so try to find the original document. Of course, those records may have been moved from their WPA-era locations — but getting to the data will be a lot quicker now that you’re in on the secret.

Taking inventory

State and county historical-record surveys didn’t end with the WPA era. Several states have done inventories to keep track of what records are generated and where they’re stored — helpful when you want to find out what happened to the 1929 Springfield County probate records that might contain your ancestor’s file. Try these modern record inventories, or check the state archives or historical society to see if there’s one for your state.

? Kansas


? New York


? Oregon


? South Carolina


? Texas

From the April 2005 Family Tree Magazine