Newly released 1940 census records are a gold mine for Sacramento genealogists

04/03/2012 12:00 AM

04/03/2012 1:55 PM

The Great Depression was ending. A debate over entering World War II embroiled America.

And according to the 1940 census, the Sacramento region was home to about 240,000 people – one-tenth of its current population.

Details about every one of those 240,000 people – and the other 132 million people living in America in 1940 – were released Monday by the U.S. Census Bureau.

The Census Bureau makes public all records from each decennial census 72 years after that census is completed. The 1940 census records, viewable online at, are a gold mine for local genealogists.

"It's a connection to yourself," said Alice Carlson, associate director of the Sacramento Regional Family History Center, noting that most people will be able to view information about their parents or their grandparents.

The massive release comes with a big hitch: It's not yet searchable by name. Visitors to the Census Bureau's website need to have a good idea where their ancestors lived in 1940 if they want to find information. Even then, they'll need to look up their ancestors' "enumeration district," a geography specific to the Census Bureau at the time.

The Regional Family History Center, located on Eastern Avenue near Marconi Avenue, offers free help to those who need it. The center is sponsored by the Mormon church but is open to anyone.

"We expect to be busy during the next six months," said Ed Lucky, the center's director.

Another option is to wait a few months as volunteers from across the country index data from the 1940 census into a database that allows searches by name. That database will be available online by the end of the year at

"If you are easily frustrated, you probably want to wait" until the records are indexed, said Mort Rumberg, immediate past president of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Sacramento.

Multitudes tried to access the census records Monday – so many that the website containing the information was often unavailable.

National Archives officials said that they were working on the problem, but delays persisted into late Monday.

"I got on it first thing this morning," said Sandra Benward, president of the Root Cellar Sacramento Genealogy Society. "It's going very slow. It's crazy."

Benward is one of the volunteers helping make the census records searchable by name. "It's pretty exciting because you get to be a part of making this ready for the rest of the country."

Every census tends to have more information than the previous one, as questions are added.

The 1940 census asked questions about languages spoken at home, home values, race, nativity, education and occupation, among other topics.

Melanie Howard, president of the Genealogical Association of Sacramento, said she used a prior census release to learn details about a relative from New Jersey she knew little about.

"I'm able to keep track of my family through the censuses," Howard said. "(The 1940 census) will tell me things I didn't know."


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