How To Use Genealogy Website Archives.gov

How To Use Genealogy Website Archives.gov

The Archives.gov website describes historical records at the National Archives and Record Administration’s (NARA) Washington, D.C., headquarters and branches around the country.

The Archives.gov website helps you access records by mail, online request, on commercial genealogy sites, and for a few of the archives’ records—including some unique documents naming members of the military, immigrants, American Indians and others—using the Archives.gov online catalog. 

The site’s strength is providing information about NARA’s records. If your ancestor immigrated to America, was counted in the US census, applied for federal land, served in the Armed Forces, lived on an Indian reservation or dealt with a government agency, start your search for records on Archives.gov. The site’s weakness? It can be difficult to navigate, and the catalog search can be cumbersome. Our web guide will help you overcome the obstacles and make the most of this site.

Records Rundown

A good place to start is the Resources for Genealogists page. If you’re after a particular type of genealogical record, using the categories here may be more helpful than a site search. Below are the most useful genealogical records you can learn about. If records aren’t available online or on microfilm, you can order photocopies for a fee by mail or online following these instructions

US censuses: The federal census has been taken every 10 years since 1790; the 1940 census is the most recent one open to the public. Censuses until 1840 name just heads of households and count others; thereafter, they list each person’s name and other details. (Only a fraction of the 1890 census survived a 1921 fire.) The links under Census on the left lead to in-depth information about each decennial enumeration, as well as the nonpopulation censuses (such as agricultural, manufacturing and mortality schedules) taken in some years. 

Land records: NARA holds records documenting transfers of US government land, such as bounty land warrants (issued as compensation for military service) and 10 million land entry case files. Search land patents for free on the Bureau of Land Management website, then order the land entry case file from NARA.

Military records: NARA holds federal military service, pension, draft registration and other records back to the Revolutionary War. Records from World War I and later are at the National Military Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis. 

Click the war your ancestor served in to learn about its records. Genealogy sites such as Ancestry.com, FamilySearchFold3 and MyHeritage offer access to many NARA military records. Among NARA’s nondigitized records are Civil War Union pension files. You’ll need to order copies from NARA for $80 for up to 100 pages, plus 70 cents per additional page. 

WWI draft registrations, taken in 1917 and 1918, record 24 million male US residents born between Sept. 11, 1872, and Sept. 12, 1900, whether or not they went on to serve. Men also registered for the WWII draft; records of older registrants are digitized online. Draft cards are available on Ancestry.com, FamilySearch, Fold3 and MyHeritage.

Official Military Personnel Files (OMPFs) with a discharge date of 1955 and earlier are open to the public in accordance with the policy to release records 62 years after discharge. A military service file costs $30 to order, but it’s usually free for the veteran named in the record or his or her next-of-kin. Note that a 1973 fire at the NPRC destroyed about 17 million OMPFs, including 80 percent of records for Army personnel discharged between Nov. 1, 1912, and Jan. 1, 1960. 

Passenger lists: NARA has records of arrivals to the United States from foreign ports (including US citizens returning from travel) between about 1820 and 1982; 20th-century records contain the most passenger information. See a port-by-port list of available microfilmed arrival records from 1800 to 1959. These records are digitized on sites such as Ancestry.com, FamilySearch, Findmypast and MyHeritage. Four immigration indexes are part of the Access to Archival Databases online search (see “How to Search”).

Passport applications: US citizens could apply for passports starting in 1789, but with a few exceptions, weren’t required to do so for foreign travel until 1941. Ancestry.com, Fold3 and Family-Search have digitized applications.

Archives.gov has several searchable databases and a catalog of NARA records, some with images. Here’s how to search:

Access to Archival Databases (AAD) lets you search 85 million of the archives’ 10 billion electronic records. AAD’s most useful databases for genealogists, almost all only in text format, include indexes to German (1850-1897), Italian (1855-1900), Russian (1834-1897) and Irish (1846-1851) immigrants (each collection actually covers more than just the group named); WWII Army enlistment records; and Korean and Vietnam war casualties. Use the search box on the main AAD page to search everything at once. Or to search a single database, click the search button by a database title, then the search button on the resulting page. 

You might start your search with just a last name, and add a first name or place if needed to focus your search. A search on my surname, Crume, produces 509 matching records in 11 series, including 72 WWII Army Enlistments. Click on the View Record column for more details from each result. A search on Crume Minnesota narrows the matches to three, two of whom are my relatives.

Find digitized records in NARA’s Catalog. It searches the NARA and presidential library websites, catalog listings about NARA records, and other federal electronic records. A catalog search is useful for finding obscure records created when your forebears dealt with the federal government. Most listings describe records that NARA holds, with information about how to access them. The description may be indexed by name, as for Alien case files (records beginning in the 1940s that document an immigrant’s progress through the citizenship process), helping you determine whether to order the record.

An assortment of catalog listings, though, are linked to digital images of records. Those include some Civil War enlistment records, Confederate service records, post-1906 naturalization files, penitentiary records, Indian school reports and journals, and birth records from applications for seamen’s protection certificates. 

A basic catalog search is easiest, then you can add search terms or filter matches from the results page (shown on the previous page). Enter keywords related to your family, such as 

  • a person’s name, especially an unusual one
  • an American Indian tribe or school name
  • a federal agency or institution (such as the name of a federal penitentiary, for a person convicted in federal court)
  • the name of a business or other organization
  • a type of record, such as naturalization or criminal case 

Let’s say you’re researching a slave ancestor with an unusual name, Hagar Corie. Type the name in the catalog search box and hit Search. The first match is Inspection Roll of Negroes Book No. 1, part of Miscellaneous Papers of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. 

Click on the thumbnail image or title for that match to see the first of 93 page images in the file (shown above). You have to browse the images to find your search term, and you can download each image. In this file, blue tags indicate that other researchers have tagged pages with names from the records, so those names turn up in catalog searches. Other users also have transcribed the records in this file. Click on a blue tag to view a split screen with the image on top and a transcription below. On the third page, the Names column lists Isaac Corie, a “stout man” of 27 years, and Hagar Corie, age 22, a “wench [with a] small child 18 mos. old.” In the possession of Col. Gilbert, they were on the Spencer bound for St. Johns.

Search the catalog for offline records. Most items described in the catalog haven’t been digitized. My relative John H. Pennington was involved in international trade, so I suspected he dealt with the federal government. I searched on his name as a phrase, using OR to cover several variations in one search: “John Hudson Pennington” OR “John H. Pennington” OR “J.H. Pennington,” as well as “Pennington, John Hudson” OR “Pennington, John H.” OR “Pennington, J.H.”

I got a match for “Pennington, J.H.” in a State Department record. The description advises contacting NARA for copies. I emailed the catalog reference and my contact information and asked how to get a copy of the record. Within three weeks, I received photocopies of the nine-page file. It has Pennington’s application to be the US representative at the Central American Expo in 1897, along with recommendations from a senator and other luminaries. I didn’t even have to pay a fee.

See the online Guide for Genealogists and Family Historians for suggested search terms. To focus your search on the most relevant records, include a term such as a city, county or state, and refine the search by date. 

For example, say one of your ancestors was involved in a federal criminal case in Fargo, Dakota Territory, in the 1880s. Under the Suggested Keywords section of the guide, click on the link to Criminal Case. This runs a catalog search that produces 70,706 matches. Add Fargo to the search box at the top of the page and click Search, narrowing the matches to 244. Then use the filters on the left to refine results by date to 1880-1889, leaving 25 matches. The first one is Criminal Case Files, 1873-1888, created by the US Territorial Court for the Third (Fargo) District of the District of Dakota. The description says the records are arranged alphabetically by surname. The original records are only in paper format at NARA’s Kansas City location. The catalog listing gives the address, phone number and email address of NARA in Kansas City, so you can contact staff to ask about obtaining copies. 

Make the most of your catalog search with these tips:

Use wildcards to find variant spellings. Use ? as a single-character wildcard and * as a wildcard for one or more characters. A search on the name Ols?n finds Olson, Olsen and Olsan and a search on rail* finds railroad and railway. 

Use quotation marks to search on a phrase as well as various versions of a person’s name. In addition to just a surname and a full name, try the name as a phrase with the first name first and the last name first, and with and without a middle name or middle initial. Use parentheses to group search terms like this: (“John H. Pennington” OR “J. H. Pennington”) AND “Central America.” 

Limit your catalog search to digitized records. You can do this a couple of ways: In the filters to the left of your search results, look under Refine By: Data Source and choose Archival Descriptions With Digital Objects. Or, look above your search results and click the Images tab.

Be patient with PDfs. If the catalog indicates the record is available in PDF format, but the image is blank, hang in there. It may take a while for a large PDF file to load. 

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