Ole Larson's Folks

Genealogy buffs are well aware that the 1940 U.S. census was released to the public this April, having reached the legally required age of 72 years. More casual observers may overlook the fact that this release was of digitized images of the pages hand-written by the census-takers “on the street” in 1940. The excellent family history arm of the LDS church organized a massive effort to index these records, which was completed at an astonishing pace – 134 million records in just four months.  As one of the 140,000 volunteers, I indexed a few thousand of them myself.

But, of course, mistakes at every level are to be expected. God knows, I made a few. After moving on to the next indexing project, I started actually exploring the 1940 census. Of course, I began with my late parents, Lovell and Reatha Larson, whom I knew lived in the  mill-workers’ district of Longview in that year, with my elder sister Darlene, who was born in 1935. But frustration quickly set in.

Expecting immediate gratification, I searched the index for Lovell Larson in Cowlitz county, Washington. Negative.  Later, several variants; finally, *any* Larson in the county. Dozens of hits, including Uncle Walt, but no likely candidates for Dad. Eventually, I abandoned the index altogether, turning to the “raw” images. Thanks to a city directory of Kelso-Longview from the same year (1940), I knew their address at the time: 238 – 20th Ave. On the census map, I determined that the address was in Enumeration District 8-25.

longview map

Then I started browsing through the 16 pages of records for that district. On about the tenth page, I found them:

1940 Lovell census

Lovell Loverson, indeed! The enumerator not only had bad handwriting, but must have been hard of hearing, or drunk, or both. But that’s what she wrote, and it was correctly indexed. I don’t know the real name of the lodger, but I doubt it was spelled “Slter” (one indexer transcribed it “Sltev!”). “Slater,” maybe, with the “a” missing.

While the LDS indexing system has a good system in place to minimize errors, it is far from foolproof. Besides, this was an error of the enumerator 72 years ago, not the indexers of 2012 at all. Unfortunately, there is not yet a method whereby discovered errors can be corrected or annotated once the index is published. FamilySearch says they are working on the issue.

I guess the lesson here is to approach a problem from many angles, use the imagination, and expect the unexpected.

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