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1940 census: Amid website overload, some report success finding ancestors

Megan Smolenyak

Megan Smolenyak said she found her father in the 1940 census and posted a picture of him then and now.

The most common story told by people trying to get a first look at newly released 1940 U.S. census online records was that they couldn’t because the government website crashed under overwhelming traffic. But for those who eventually managed to get through, some success stories emerged.

“I was able to find my old block in the Sunset. To do so, I had to look at an old SF map marked with 'enumeration districts' and then find the right batch of census pages,” a man named Steve posted on the website of Western Neighborhoods Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving and sharing the history and culture of the neighborhoods in western San Francisco.

“I was surprised to find that most of the houses there (on 29th) had been built before April 1935. This census, unlike older ones, has a space showing where each person lived in April, 1935, and most said they lived in the same place. I would have expected more of a 1935-40 timeframe.”


The U.S. National Archives site housing the 1940 data, which provide a snapshot of America during the period when the nation was recovering from the Great Depression and before entry into World War II, received more than 22 million hits in just four hours after going public on Monday.  The number topped 37 million by evening, crashing the servers and frustrating hordes of Americans hoping find a specific snippet of family history.

'Tsunami' swamps Archives and firm serving up 1940 census

Despite the technical glitches, many genealogy aficionados eventually reported triumphs.

“Just found my teenaged Grandparents living in the same neighborhood in the #1940Census So cool!” jalex7802 posted on Twitter.

Archives.com, the National Archives’ development partner on this project, cited other successes as well:

Kimberly Powell, a professional genealogist, blogger and mother of three children, wrote:

"While preparing a few weeks ago for today's release of the 1940 U.S. Census, I wrote about about my grandfather, Walter Henry Thomas--the man I most wanted to find in the 1940 census. It was a period of transition for Granddad, living in the "big city" of Pittsburgh for a few years on his own, between his childhood growing up in the coal country of Cambia County, PA, and his enlistment in the Marine Corps and move to Parris Island, South Carolina.

Wonder of wonders, I did find him today. Took a bit of patience with the extraordinary traffic loads on NARA's 1940 Census website (22.5 million in 4 hours), and he was near the end of the batch of images in his particular enumeration district (ED). But, honestly, everything overall went better than expected. My 22-year-old future grandfather was living right where my pre-census research had told me he was most likely to be living--at 606 Center St in the Allegheny County borough of Wilkingsburg, near Pittsburgh. He listed his full name (Walter Henry Thomas), was single (two years later he had enlisted in the Marines, was living in Beaufort, SC, and married to my grandmother), and working as a doorman at a local theatre. He stated he was living in Glasgow, Cambria, Pennsylvania, in 1935, right where I would have expected him to still be living with his parents. He had worked 43 hours in the previous week (he always was a hard worker), completed 1 year of high school, and earned $770 in 1939.

Of course, he was enumerated on line 16...just missing the supplemental questions asked of the individual on line 14. Drat!"

Banai Lynn Feldstein wrote on her The Ginger Jewish Genealogist blog:

"After only or less than three hours of sleep, I got up for the opening ceremony for the 1940 US Census. I knew the servers would be overloaded, but after finding they were using the Amazon cloud, I expected better.

However, after fighting with the web site through no responses and server errors, even seeing “too many connections” among my error messages (so much for scaling up), I was able to download some pages from an ED in New York City. At the UJGS meeting, I looked up the ED for Ludwig Schwartzman, who was living c/o Kessler, so it was a good start because it was two different cousins at the same address.

The ED had 26 pages, and downloading one at a time was tedious to say the least. I noticed the street addresses seemed low and I was worried I was in the wrong ED.

And then, 10 pages in, success!

But wait, where’s Ludwig? Oh, never mind, I found my grandparents! Schooling is interesting as Sidney is H3 and Mary is 8. So Sidney finished three years of high school? I’ll have to look up what that means exactly. And they both work at a laundry that he owns; sounds right. And they lived at the same place in 1935. That’s unexpected."

Megan Smolenyak, the self-described “genealogical adventurer” who traced President Barack Obama’s roots to Moneygall, Ireland, said she found her father in the 1940 census. She posted a photo (see above) of him as a 4-year-old in 1940 alongside a photo of him last week standing outside the same location -- the basement apartment at 19 Sycamore St. in Wilkes-Barre, Penn., where he lived.

“He was living with his parents and 15-year-old aunt in the 1940 census. All four of them lived in the two-room basement apartment, which had a dirt floor at the time,” Smolenyak told msnbc.com in an email. 

“My grandfather shows in the census as working as a laborer for the WPA. Shortly thereafter, the family moved to Newark, N.J., but when we went to the house in Wilkes-Barre last week, a neighbor across the street still remembered my dad and his mother! She told us that no one had ever lived in the basement again after they left."

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Others were less than exuberant in describing how their initial attempt to surf the 1940 census data hit a technical roadblock.

“This is terrible, it is almost like someone or people do not want the general public to access these 1940 census records, even if we know most of the information concerning our ancestry,” Pat Sewell wriote on msnbc.com’s Open Channel Facebook page.

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