Treasure Hunt – Using the WPA/HRS Index [updated 28 November 2022]

In my last post titled “Even More Riches – Even More Local”, I described how document descriptions at the Baltimore City Archives are being entered into the Guide to Government Records at the Maryland State Archives website. But how can genealogis…

In my last post titled “Even More Riches, Even More Local“, I described how document descriptions at the Baltimore City Archives are being entered into the Guide to Government Records at the Maryland State Archives website.  But how can genealogists uncover their own riches?

The answer is in the WPA/HRS Index with over 300,000 names – that is a plethora!  The same 1930s workers who individually numbered many historical documents also created index cards for each unique name encountered in those documents. They point to everyday interactions of thousands of city residents with their government – petitions, licenses, bonds, contracts, reports, fines, passenger lists, etc.  However, it only covers a portion of the records housed at BCA, 28 series of the total of 81 numbered records groups and 35 manuscript collections.  1797 is the first year for which records are indexed; 1938 is the last year. After 1924, the index points only to  documents concerning mechanical and electrical service, so for all practical purposes, you can consider 1924 to be the last year.

Until recently, the WPA/HRS Index existed only on paper – in drawers and drawers of 3×5 cards:


Some of the cards were microfilmed and then scanned and some were scanned directly but the main point is that NOW they are all available (in stacks) in PDF format and can be viewed from home.

Here’s a real example of how this works – my research on John G. Buck, work undertaken for a client, shared with her permission.

Step 1.  Access the Index to determine HRS number.

Open the WPA Historical Records Survey Name Index (BRG76-3) at:

To research John G. Buck, we scroll down to this line:

Details BCA 12502 (Scanned) HRS Index Cards – Buabe to Calhoun Link BCA BRG76-3-8

and click on the link, noting that Buck would be closer to the beginning than the end of the Buabe-Calhoun span :

There can be as many as 5,000 cards in each “stack”, so it may take a while to load.  As with any index, you’ll want to check for alternative spellings of both first and last names and first initials used in place of full first names.  (In this example, there were many John Buck entries with no middle initial, which might have referred to the same man.) 

John G. Buck, an exact match, is found here, at image number 357 in this stack. Make note of both the year of the document and the HRS document number in parentheses.


Step 2.   Translate the HRS number in parentheses to the current Record Group number.

The documents were individually numbered within each year in the 1930s and were, for a time, physically arranged that way.  In 1982, however, they were re-grouped in more traditional series, and physically re-arranged. The HRS numbers were retained, though, and remain on the documents and recorded on the folders.

Open the WPA-HRS Record Groups “translation” document (PDF):

Scroll through the PDF and look FIRST for the year – 1883, in this example.  Remember!  The document numbers are not unique. There is a #399 for every year included in this system.

After double-checking the year, look for the record group associated with that HRS number.

The year 1883 is on the 34th page (but the pages are NOT numbered) and the table points to RG 16 Series 1.


Step 3.  Go to the Baltimore City Archives website and Plan Your Visit.

Step 4.  When your appointment is confirmed, come to the BCA and see the document!

After you arrive and complete the registration process, the staff will bring the box to you…inside – the folders include the year and the HRS number.


In this case, the petition of Caroline Street residents to the Baltimore City Council for electric lights  (note HRS #399 visible on a sticker at the top!)…


offered a list of John G. Buck’s neighbors…


and a (first ever) look at his actual signature:


Modest riches, yes  – but real treasure, most definitely.

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