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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: Unmined Gold - The Historical Records Survey
by Rhonda R. McClure

April 06, 2000
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Just what is the Historical Records Survey? This was a program under the auspices of the Works Project Administration. It was designed to provide useful employment for needy, unemployed historians, lawyers, teachers, research and clerical workers.

The survey was undertaken in the window of 1935-1936. The purpose of this program was to inventory church and public records that were extant during the 1930s.

The Historical Records Survey is an overlooked resource for record availability.

A Bit About the Inventories

Fortunately for us, these inventories were published and many of them are available on file and micro fiche through your local Family History Center. Some of the records that the Family History Library has are of actual records, whereas others are of the inventories.

To find what is available, look in the Family History Library Catalog in the micro fiche version. You will want to look in the Author/Title section for Works Project Administration and also under United States - Works Project Administration.

What You Can Find

The point of the inventories is to detail what records are available and where they could be found in the 1930s. While they may not still be in that area, at least you have a way of knowing what is available. I am going to use the "Guide to Public Vital Statistics Records in Indiana" as the example of what you might be able to find.

The inventory is broken up by record type: births, marriages, deaths, and divorces. Thereunder the records are divided by state, county and municipal section. Fortunately the Indiana inventory has also cross referenced where a town may have ended up in two counties (as a result of the county lines changing).

To be better prepared for what records might be available, it is a good idea to read up on the record-keeping practices for any given state. Ancestry's Red Book is an excellent resource for this information. For instance, in Indiana the state began keeping births in 1907 and the deaths from 1899. However, the counties and cities may have kept them earlier. The state did not keep record of marriages. You must turn to the county for marriage and divorce records. Knowing this I will not be frustrated when I search the inventory.

How They Can Help

You will want to be sure to read the sections on how to use the inventory and the explanatory notes. These will help you to understand what dates and records are actually housed in any given location. For instance, in Indiana dates that end in a dash (-) indicate that at the time of the inventory the records were still ongoing. If they divide the dates with a comma (,) that indicates that there is a break in years and that there are missing records.

In my own research I have family that was in Orange County, Indiana prior to 1850. A search of the record holdings for Orange county reveal the following:

Birth records began on 7 Feb 1882 and could be found in 11 volumes, numbered by register number and the index is alphabetical by family name. There was no ending date as the birth records were ongoing.

Armed with this information I would know whether or not birth records for my family would exist. Since my family was in Orange County before 1850, the birth records aren't of help to me. However, additional records might be. It is important to investigate all the holdings inventoried.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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