I found James Dean on the 1940 census the other day. He was a 9-year-old living in Santa Monica, California, with his parents – not yet the handsome bad boy of the silver screen that he would become.
I tried to find James back in April when the 1940 census was first released. His biography on Wikipedia.org told me that he was born in 1931, and provided his parents’ names. The difficulty was that his mother died when he was nine years old – just about 1940, apparently – and he then moved from Santa Monica back to his native Indiana to live with an aunt and uncle. I didn’t know in which state he was living when the census was taken, and the indexes had not yet been completed. But I had heard my colleague Delia Bourne’s lecture on locating people in the 1940 census and was hopeful.
First I located James’s aunt and uncle, Ortense and Marcus Winslow, in Fairmount, Indiana. But James was not in their household. From a biographical sketch, I had a fairly specific description of where the Deans lived in Santa Monica, although not the exact address. Next, I tackled the step-by-step instructions on the National Archives website to browse for the family in California. To make this long story short, I was not successful. I searched through several enumeration districts in the Santa Monica area without finding James Dean.
Fortunately, both Indiana and California are now indexed at Ancestry, and locating James Dean was as easy as typing in his information and clicking on “Search.” I used Ancestry, where currently 38 states and territories are indexed, but another indexing project, the 1940 Census Community Project, has its indexed states available for searching at Archives' 1940 Census, and at FamilySearch's 1940 Federal Census. The Archives site gives visitors the option to sign up to receive notifications when new states become searchable, and the FamilySearch site has a map showing the progress on the remaining unindexed states.
I was not successful in locating James Dean last April before the 1940 census was indexed for California, but I was successful in locating both of my sets of grandparents and all but one of my great-grandparents – so don’t despair if the state you need is not yet indexed. Using resources such as those available at the National Archives website, the 1930-1940 enumeration district calculator, and city directories to pinpoint addresses and cross streets can work in most cases. And if you are not successful immediately, it will be only a short while before all states are searchable on the 1940 census.