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April 11, 2012

Finding Home in 1940 Census

Norman M. Covert

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) released the 1940 census last week. It is the first on-line, location-only searchable data base, with the extra added attraction telling me that my dad was on hiatus between U. S. Army hitches in Detroit in 1935.


I learned with the official NARA announcement that I am still obsessed with the genealogical chase. More importantly I am reminded of the days when my extended family lived within a two-block square in Newport News, VA.


What security, I recall, to have cookies a few years later with Nanny (Great-Grandmother Barker) on 32nd Street right after school, then go between the garages to Grandmother Goodson’s house for more attention before going home across 33rd street.


I resisted the urge to enter the NARA database and see what I could find. Initial users told me the site was busy, becoming non-responsive and thus so time consuming they decided it could wait. I waited until Friday to log on and found NARA’s IT contactor had put in fixes to meet the heavy demand.


My genealogical experience, plus being a ‘user” with a layman’s knowledge of the web, got me through the gateways to the right URL (web address). You may only search by location, or enumeration district, which may include several contiguous blocks of a city or town.


After spending a couple hours “multi-tasking” and riveted – again, I realized I should download and peruse it at my leisure. What a great opportunity, no charge, too. I am told NARA has an on-going effort to digitize all its census returns. It is a wealth of family information, but also subject to errors.


This searchable census makes me alternately happy and probably “un-amused,” as I recall my 10-year research effort. My computer at the time was a floppy disk operated Radio Shack TRS-80 (it replaced my Trash-80 cassette version), on which I began recording my data base. It was booted up with one floppy and a data disk then inserted. It was amazing!


Even my current dated desktop computer may have more storage memory (76.9 GB in Drive C) than the Fort Detrick data center could stack in a room full of tape-drive machines in 1980.


My searches consumed weekends, vacation days and weeks, plus the travel expenses and copying money. I found joy and disappointment recording what I found, or did not find, tramping through cemeteries, libraries, and in genealogical society holdings.


I knocked on doors and rode the Metro to the National Archives in Washington, spending hours in Room 400 poring over rolls of microfilm. The latter became vigils often devoid of lunch, then trying to beat the rush hour crush on the Metro.


After my father’s death in 1985, I intended only to tie up what I called “loose ends” of his life’s work as part of the estate matters. This included three generations of family research. It took a decade before I figured I had enough info to publish.


Dad started searching Covert roots beyond his rural Illinois families, plus he sought Georgia antecedents of my mother’s family. He had notebooks, index cards, a cassette tape recorder and typewriter in 1970. There was no computer and no public data bases to search.


He talked with close family members, then corresponded with librarians and court clerks seeking information. He ignored the plodding pace, establishing contacts and gathered a surprising amount of information. He maintained it in three-ring binders.


The Covert search was made easier when he and mother were able to drive to Michigan and New York to meet distant family members.


Unreliable data shortstopped his search for my maternal great-great-grandfather, Nicholas Goodson. A teenaged Georgia infantryman, he was treated at Richmond area military hospitals after the Battle of Seven Pines in 1862 and assigned as a replacement to a Virginia Light Artillery Brigade.


His unit was decimated in June 1864. Nicholas was wounded severely while bombarding the railroad bridge here during the Battle of Monocacy. He was sent to recuperate with a fellow soldier’s family in Fluvanna County, VA. Several KIAs from Massie’s Battalion are buried at Mount Olivet Cemetery. Records on wounded soldiers are difficult to find.


More curious about Granddaddy Nicholas is that he apparently used an assumed name on occasion. I love the intrigue.


I continue to gather bits and pieces of family information, but more valuable have been the warm friendships struck with distant cousins in the Lower 48 after publication of my book, “Tree of Life,” in 1995.


The 1940 census did not include me. I came along three years later, but it tells me mother and dad lived at 721  33rd Street in Newport News. They had a child named Harry M., listed as four, but big brother actually was three months old on April 5, 1940.


Dad was a painter in the shipyard and worked an average of 40 hours each week, earning $1,000 in 1939. They paid $15 a month rent.


Granddaddy Goodson owned his house and the household included four children and four boarders. Dad was 31, Mother 20, Granddaddy 42, Grandmother 40, Nanny 68 and Granddaddy Barker 70.


I didn’t realize they were so young!


(You may get started on the 1940 census at )


Yellow Cab
The Morning News Express with Bob Miller
The Covert Letter

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