Library of Congress

Teachers

The Library of Congress > Teachers > Classroom Materials > Collection Connections > American Life Histories

Back to Collection Connections

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

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].

Top

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]

Top

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]

Top