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[Detail] Woman living with her family of four in an old street car.

Collection Overview

The 2,900 documents in American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940 chronicle vivid life stories of Americans who lived at the turn of the century. Narratives tell of meeting Billy the Kid, surviving the 1871 Chicago fire, pioneer journeys West, of grueling factory work, and the immigrant experience. Writers hired by this Depression-era work project included Ralph Ellison, Nelson Algren, and many others.

Special Features

These online exhibits provide context and additional information about this collection.

Historical Eras

These historical era(s) are best represented in the collection although they may not be all-encompassing.

  • The Civil War and Reconstruction, 1850-1877
  • Development of the Industrial United States, 1876-1915
  • Emergence of Modern America, 1890-1930
  • The Great Depression and World War II, 1929-1945

Related Collections and Exhibits

These collections and exhibits contain thematically-related primary and secondary sources. Also browse the Collection Finder for more related material on the American Memory Web site.

Other Resources

Recommended additional sources of information.

Search Tips

Specific guidance for searching this collection.

To search the collection by location, go to Select a Region and State. This screen provides guided searches by region of the United States. To find out how many interviews were registered in a particular state, go to States. Although interviews were conducted in twenty-four states, more states are mentioned in the life histories. Search by keyword to find items mentioning other locations.

For help with general search strategies, see Finding Items in American Memory.

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U.S. History

This collection contains 2900 biographical interviews obtained during the Depression years of 1936-1940. Writers contributed to this project through an employment program of the Works Progress Administration. The writers chronicled interviews with Americans asked to recall significant events in their lives. The resulting collection offers a rich exposition of everyday life in rural and urban United States, from the end of the Civil War through the years of the Great Depression. Each document in this collection relates the compelling story of a human life.

1) The collection includes dramatic stories of the hardships faced by pioneers settling the United States.

Search on settlers, pioneers, homestead, territory. For example,

Search on homestead for text such as:

In the spring of 1866 the family moved to their homestead, living in a dugout until some time later when they constructed a small house of stone....Mr. Lane had arrived at his homestead with 30 head of cattle and several horses. He put out sod corn which gave all indication of being a wonderful crop, but the grasshoppers took the entire crop....After winter set in with no feed for the stock they commenced to suffer. The horses became so weak from starvation [that] they were not fit for traveling so Mr. Lane would walk 15 miles ... to pay $2.00 per bushel for corn and carry a sack full on his shoulder making a thirty mile round trip for one sack of corn. When spring came, he had three cows and a couple of horses he had managed to winter through.

From the life history, "Nebraska: [Mrs. Wm. Trace] (Louise Lane Trace), [November 29, 1938]"

2) The life histories document hundreds of stories of immigrants coming to America. These interviews highlight the waves of immigrants who entered the United States from 1840 to 1920.

IMMIGRATION WAVES
Years Nations of Origin
1840 - 1880 Germany, Great Britain, Ireland
1860 - 1880 China, Norway, Sweden
1880 - 1900 Austria-Hungary, Italy
1890 - 1920 Japan, Russia

Search on the country of origin, such as Austria-Hungary, China, Germany, Great Britain, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Norway, Russia, Sweden, to find compelling firsthand accounts of coming to America. For example,

Search on Italy for text such as;

I am satisfy' in the ol' country, but there I am alone, so when my boy write six year ago an' ask me to come over I say to myself: listen, you ol' fool Parlatanto, here is a chance to see a new country. You talk a lot an' nothing have you see. Go over there, you fool, go on over an' see something. That's what I say to myself, an' so good a talker I am even to myself that in two month I am over here across the ocean. My son, he meet me In New York an' we come straight to Barre where he is work' in the stone shed.

From the life history: "Vermont: [This Vincenzo who is my Grandfather]," [July 31, 1940]

Search on Germany for text such as;

Frieda was oppressed by all the newness about her. She missed the cobbled square where housewives baked in the community oven and gossiped and chattered in her own familiar tongue. She longed for the comforting stability and sense of permanence about the century old houses of her own village.

From the life history: "North Carolina: [The Schmidts]," [January 13, 1939].

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3) The life history interviews are filled with adventure. The stories tell of outlaws, encounters with Native Americans, and battling the natural elements.

Search on Billy the Kid, blizzard, cowboy, drought, Indian, outlaw, wagon train. For example,

Search on Billy the Kid for text such as:

"There have been many untrue stories told of the Kid's sensational escape after killing his two guards Bell and Ollinger. I remember all the facts in connection with that escape," said Mrs. Church.

"Billy the Kid, was playing cards with Bell, while Ollinger, his other guard, was at dinner across the street, he [the Kid] saw his chance and grabbed Bell's gun. Bell darted down the inside stairway, but Billy the Kid was too quick for him, he fired and Bell fell dead at the bottom of the stairs. Billy the Kid then walked calmly to a window and shot Ollinger down as he came running when he heard the shooting."

From the life history: "New Mexico: [Mrs. Amelia (Bolton) Church]," [September 23, 1938]

Search on wagon train for text such as:

Some hair - raising stories of experience with the Indians as told by Mr. William H. Eisele.... Perhaps the most exciting one [was] when they reached the Arkansas River and were preparing to ford it. Some fierce looking red skins in breech clouts and war paint rode up and watched the proceedings with interest and when the [oxen] team Eisele was managing balked in midstream and refused to budge, the Indians charged into the water with blood stirring yells, apparently, bent on taking advantage of the situation. To the surprise and relief of the wagon men, however, they proved to be interested only in getting the refactory oxen in motion and they did this with the use of English oaths, probably the only English words they knew.

From the life history: "New Mexico: [Description of a Pioneer's Experience]," [September 4, 1936]

4) These narratives include many tales of war, including the Civil War, Spanish American War, and World War I (known then simply as the World War).

Search on war, Civil War, Spanish American War, World War. For example,

Search on Civil War for text such as:

Mr. Gooding: I was born in the State of Kentucky, October 20, 1855, but my father, A. F. Gooding, and my mother with the family, moved to Polk County, Missouri, when I was but a child. My father joined the Confederate Army, although we were living in a state that didn't go with the seceded states.Yankees came often to our house in search for father, and they showed mother the tree on which they proposed to hang him if he was ever caught by them. They took off all our slaves without our leave, for which we never received any compensation. Mother decided to take the family, consisting of my two young brothers, Sterling and Charles, my sister, Bell, and myself back to the old home in Kentucky.

From the life history: "South Carolina: [Ella E. Gooding]," [June 28, 1938]

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5) The collection includes many stories of the lives of African Americans and their perseverance over hardships before, during, and after the Civil War.

Search on slaves, slavery, Civil War, Reconstruction, Negro, lynching. For example,

Search on Negro for text such as:

Bones, young and inexperienced, had hired out to wrangle horses for a certain cattleman. One day, while he was tending the horses and minding his own business, Vigilantes rode up and asked him, "Are you working for those cattlemen down the creek?" Bones admitted that he was. Before he could says "Jack Robinson", the Vigilantes jerked him up and started to hang him an the nearest tree. They had already hanged the two white men mentioned to other convenient trees...

Bones was certain that they were going to add him to their victims, when Skillety Bill spoke up in behalf of the colored lad, saying that he was a mere boy, wrangling horses for the boss and only carrying out orders of the cattle thief, whom he had taken to be a bona fide cattleman. "A red-haired man astride a limb of the tree gave the rope around my neck a rough jerk", Bones vividly recalled; "and said, Aw, come on, let's got it over with'; but Skillety Bill saved my life."

From the life history: "Texas: [Bones Hooks]," [December 23, 1940]

6) The life stories highlight working conditions and the affect of industrialization on Americans.

Search on work, labor, boss, factory, and specific types of occupations and industries. For example,

Search on mill for text such as:

When I was nine years old , I went to work in the mill at Milledgeville, N. C. I worked in the spinnin' room every day in the week, twelve hours a day. I was paid ten cents a day. Yes, the pay is better now, but the work is harder. Workin' in the mill now is just slavery.

From the life history: "North Carolina: [The Farlows]," [December 16, 1938]

7) Because these interviews were recorded during the Great Depression, many of the life histories include tales of hardships endured during the Depression era.

Search on Depression, work, unemployed, job. For example,

Search on work for text such as:

"It's pretty hard to get a job these days," says Mr. Coburn, who has been unemployed for several months. "Of course you can go to work if you want to work for nothin'. I had a chance for a job the other day--twenty five cents an hour, seventy hours a week. By Jeez I'd rather not work . I ain't afraid of work , but I like to get paid for it. Ten years ago they wouldn't have had the nerve to offer a man a job like that."

From the life history: "Connecticut: [It's pretty hard to get a job these days]," [January 10? 1939]

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Critical Thinking

The personal stories in this collection provide a powerful account of American history. Students will find the stories engaging and thought provoking. The many personalities, events, and topics covered by this collection provide rich opportunities for students to develop historical thinking skills.

Chronological Thinking

There is no obvious chronological organizer for the collection as a whole, but as students search individual narratives, they can construct sequences for historical events as described in these firsthand accounts. Students might examine the development of railroads over time, the changes in labor conditions, or the roles of immigrants in America.

Search on immigrant, labor, railroad. For example,

Search on railroad for text such as:

You ask me, among other subjects, if I can tell you anything of the early Chinese laborers here in Oregon, and their life as it touched our own people. I can remember, when a boy in Polk County, in the [18]'70s there was nearly always a gang of Chinese coolies working somewhere about, either on our farm, grubbing the scrub oak, or grading with shovels on the railroad construction. Chinese coolies most of them from China's southern provinces were brought to the Pacific Coast by the thousands in those early construction days, when our steamshovels of today were yet unheard of.

From the life history: "Oregon: [Early Reminiscences--Chinese]," [February 13, 1939]

Historical Comprehension

As students investigate the life stories, each interview will guide them on a journey in which they can learn about the narrator's motivations, intentions, hopes, fears, strengths, and weaknesses. These personal stories provide an exciting way for students to study topics in American history.

Search on family, law, medicine, names of occupations, politics, religion, social customs. For example,

Search on politics for text such as:

"Votes used to be bought -- that is before the secret ballot was adopted. Some sold 'em pretty cheap. I remember one old fellow who sold out to one party for a dollar -- then sold out to the other for the same price. The lad that bought his vote first caught him at the polls and took the ballot away from him. Used to be fights at the polls -- very frequently.

But one thing, by God, you might mention -- they didn't have to go after anyone and give 'em a ride to the polls the way they do now. People appreciated the franchise and they didn't have to be urged to vote ."

From the life history: "Connecticut: [Politics, WPA, etc.], [January 10, 1939]

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Historical Analysis and Interpretation

Each narrative in this collection allows students to experience history from an intensely personal perspective. Students can compare accounts of similar issues or events and study different points of view on conditions in history. Using the interviews, students can begin to understand the interpretive nature of historical investigation and the elusive task of recreating the past.

Search on topics such as cities, farming, settlement, war, work. For example,

Search on education for text such as:

I stopped school when I was in the seventh grade...."Of courses I didn't think much about quitting school then, but I can see now what it might have meant to me to continue and my main interest in life now is to see that my children get a college education. I am not ashamed to work in a mill, but at the same time I would like for my children to be prepared for something better. I don't see any reason why anybody with reasonable health cannot give their children educational advantages this day and time. My girl is twelve, she is almost through the grammar grades and will have a good high school right here at our door where she will be able to learn more in one year than I learned by the time I got married [at 16].

From the life history: "[Margie Rushing]," [January 22, 1941]

And search on education for text such as:

Soon after the War between the States and after the war clouds had cleared away there were a number of northern whites who gave up home comforts and lucrative positions to come South to devote their lives to the education of the Negro.. . [The South] had prohibited the education of Negroes, who, until after Emancipation, were merely looked upon as machines. Well, when Atlanta University was first begun my grandfather was one who assisted in getting food and other necessities for the teachers. As a child, my mother used to tell me and my sisters, how grandfather had worked hard to support his family and gave generously to the teachers at Atlanta University who were paving a way for the education of the Negro. She said he would purchase his groceries on Saturday for his immediate family and then carry all he could to Atlanta University for the teacher. He sent his children there. He had four children, two sons and two daughters. Three of his children graduated from Atlanta University, one of whom happened to be my mother.

From the life history: "Georgia: [Unable to Stage a Comeback]," [October 27, 1939]

Historical Research Capabilities

Students can use the collection to gather primary source evidence about many aspects of American history. For example, students might want to research the role of medicine and health care in the United States.

Search on medicine, medical, illness, sick, doctor, health. For example,

Search on doctor for text such as:

Asked what is the greatest hardship for a woman and her family, in times such as she passed through, Mary said, "First of all, it was hard to be so far away from a doctor, especially for expectant mothers. If you did not have family folks to go to somewhere in civilization, you had to just trust God and the next neighbor. During those awful days of reconstruction, we often had no one to help us but some neighbor or perhaps a colored mammy. If the case was a hard one, as it often was, the woman would perhaps die and the child, too, before someone could go all the way to town and bring the doctor back. Of course if we could, we went somewhere within reach of help, but some women had no place to go."

From the life history: "Florida: [The story of Immokalee]," [December 16, 1938]

Historical Issue Analysis and Decision Making

Students can study the collection to experience the historian's dilemma of assessing credibility of a primary source. Students might answer questions such as:

  • Who produced the interview?
  • Why was the interview produced?
  • When was the interview produced?
  • What time periods does the interview cover?
  • Do you think the interview subject's story is believable? Why or why not?
  • Do you think the interviewer influenced the subject? Why or why not?

Search on story for text such as:

She tried to make everything nice her first Friday in America, she had plenty of everything.... She felt very proud of the kitchen. She came from a small city where they didn't have these things. So after everything was all done she looked for a place where to put everything for tomorrow, because you know they don't cook on Saturday. So she was looking around the kitchen where to put her things and she discovered a little door there. So she opens the door and she sees there is a kind of a pretty big closet there with one shelf. The only thing is that it is dirty there. ...So she takes a pail of warm water and she scrubs out this closet and she makes it clean like gold. And then she takes the fish and the chicken and the soup and she puts it in there.

When her husband came home she begins to rave about the wonderful Schabbus (Sabbath) she made him her first week in America. So she sets the table and she puts the Cholloh on and then she goes to take out the fish and the other things from the closet . So all excited she gives an open-up-the-door to take out the stuff. There is no closet ! Nothing! Only a hole there. There is no Sabbath. So she got scared and she tells her husband that she put away all the things in the closet and now it is all gone, even the closet, and she can't make it out. So he noticed already that it was in the dumbwaiter she went to get out the food. So he tells her she can kiss the Schabbus (Sabbath) good-bye because her closet had been pulled down by the janitor.

From the life history: "New York: [Greenhorn Stories]," [October 26, 1938]

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Arts & Humanities

This collection offers a number of opportunities for students to enrich their language arts experiences.

Creative Writing

Students can develop a short story or poem based on one of the interviews. They can use photographs, newspapers, and other sources to illustrate contemporary parallels to the themes or concepts described in the interview.

Studying Vernacular

The interviews often capture local vernacular. Students can study the influences and evolution of speech and language in our country. Students might search for immigrant narratives that reflect the influence of people's native languages. They might search for words that are no longer used in common parlance today. Then, students can write a definition for these older words using the context of the interview and other sources. For example,

Search on scalawag, carpetbagger, or desperado.

Themes in Literature

The life histories, in combination with fictional novels, can engage students in the study of themes such as loss of innocence, consequences of failure, corruption and its consequences, and loss and recovery. They can compare Stephen Crane's Maggie, A Girl of the Streets with the life history, "New York: [The Private Life of Big Bess]," [November 11, 1938], which can be found in the life histories collection. Students might look for life history interviews that parallel events and themes in John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath.

Students can study the Harlem Renaissance using the life histories collection and the Carl Van Vechten Photograph Collection from the Library of Congress. The interviews with Albert Burke and Ophelia Jemison can serve as real-life examples of the characters and themes prominent in the poetry of Langston Hughes and Claude McCay, and the novels of Richard Wright. Students can search for other interviews that highlight themes (such as vision and ideals, and conflict and resolution) that are prominent in the works of Hughes, McCay, and Wright. Students can search for pictures of the authors in the Van Vechten collection.

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