The Works Progress Administration

Most genealogists are familiar with the Soundex indexes to the US Census and indexes to vital records in several states, but may not realize that the Works Progress Administration (WPA) was responsible for those accomplishments.  In the later years of its existence, the Works Progress Administration was known as the Work Projects Administration.

The WPA was established in 1935 by order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt as part of his “New Deal for every American”.  As part of the relief efforts during the Great Depression, the WPA was designed to provide jobs for the unemployed.  Some of the better known projects of the WPA include Camp David, Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood in Oregon, and the Houston City Hall.

In addition to these construction projects, the WPA also conducted the Historical Records Survey, an effort to survey and index historically significant documents.  Some of the works of particular interest to genealogists are:

  • The Soundex Indexes to the 1880, 1900, 1910, and 1920 U.S. Census
  • The Soundex Index to Naturalization Petitions for the United States District and Circuit Courts, Northern District of Illinois and Immigration and Naturalization Service District #9, 1840-1950
  • The Soundex Name Index to New England Naturalization Petitions, 1790-1906
  • Index to Naturalization Petitions of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, 1865-1957
  • Index to Marriage Record, Morgan County, Indiana, 1850-1941, inclusive
  • Index to Birth Records, Orange County, Indiana, 1882-1938, inclusive
  • The Salem Witchcraft papers: compiled transcripts of the legal documents of the Salem witchcraft outbreak of 1692
  • Dyer County, Tennessee wills
  • General index to records of births, marriages, and deaths, town of Berlin, Connecticut
  • Tyler County, West Virginia, marriages and deaths, 1853-1899
  • Grave stone records of Wayne County, Iowa
  • Record of the Greenhill Presbyterian Church, 3108 Pennsylvania Ave., Wilmington, Delaware, 1851-1917
  • Inscriptions of Jewish Cemetery and small Jewish burial ground, Savannah, Georgia

The Family History Library Catalog has 992 matching titles for the keywords “Works Progress Administration”, and 1003 matching titles for the keywords “Work Projects Administration”.

The Historical Records Survey was shut down on February 1, 1943.  At that time, nearly everyone was employed because of the Second World War.

My first direct experience with the fruits of the WPA’s labor was in searching the Soundex cards for the 1920 US Census.  The card for my great great uncle, Frank Niedzialkoski is shown below.  Even though his surname is misspelled as Naedzialkosky on the card, the soundex code for Niedzialkoski and Naedzialkosky is the same!

Soundex Card for Frank Niedzialkoski 1920

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