Archives.gov Web Guide

Archives.gov Web Guide

The best genealogy search strategies, tips and techniques for the National Archives' and Records Administration's website.

Web address: Archives.gov
Owner: National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)      
 

Stats

  • Online electronic records: 1 million available through Online Public Access (OPA); 85 million through Access to Archival Databases (AAD)
  • Electronic data: 133 terabytes stored at the National Archives
  • Print: 10 billion pages in National Archives collections

Content Highlights

  • Catalog: Online Public Access catalog of NARA’s paper, microfilmed and electronic records 
  • Research guides: Descriptions of NARA records and how to access them
  • Access to archival databases: Japanese Americans relocated during World War II; WWII Army enlistment records and prisoners of war, Korean War and Vietnam War casualties and prisoners of war; US arrivals by ship, 1834-1900
  • American Indian records: Indexes to the Dawes and Guion-Miller rolls

Timeline

1800, 1814: Fires destroy most Revolutionary War service and pension applications
1921: Fire damages 1890 census records
1926: $1 million appropriated for a national archives building
1933: President Hoover lays the cornerstone for the National Archives building  in Washington, DC, one day
before Congress authorizes the destruction of the damaged 1890 census records
1934: President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signs an act creating the National Archives as an independent agency
1952: The Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Bill of Rights are displayed in the National Archives Rotunda
1973: A fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis destroys about 22 million military service files dated between 1912 and 1963
2008: National Archives launches Digital Vaults website
 
The Archives.gov website describes historical records at the National Archives’ Washington, DC, headquarters and branches around the country. It also helps you access them by mail or online request and sometimes, on a commercial genealogy website. You can search and view digitized images of a small percentage of the National Archives’ records on Archives.gov. Our web guide will help you make the most of this website.
 

NARA for genealogists

If your ancestor was counted in the US census, immigrated to America, applied for federal land, served in the Armed Forces, lived on an Indian reservation or dealt with a government agency, start your search for related records on Archives.gov. As custodian of federal government records, NARA has many genealogical documents. Only a handful are digitized or indexed on NARA’s website, but the site’s strength is providing information about records you might want to research, and helping you access them elsewhere online, on microfilm or at a NARA facility.

The site’s weakness? It can be cumbersome and difficult to navigate. We suggest starting with the Resources for Genealogists page. If you’re looking for details on a particular type of genealogical record, clicking the categories here is often more useful than doing a site search using the Online Public Access tool. To get at the information you need, explore these parts of the Resources for Genealogists page:

 
 
1. Browse 1940 census records for free, if you know the enumeration district. (You can search the same records by name at the free FamilySearch.org.)

2. Get an overview of NARA records and links to NARA’s online records.

3. Click for an alphabetical list of links to research guides for 30 interest areas, such as ethnicities and record types.

4. Access Archives.gov searches including Online Public Access, the Microfilm Catalog and Access to Archival Databases.

5. Get genealogy charts and recording forms for various genealogical records.

6. Read Prologue magazine articles for in-depth information about NARA’s records.

7. Learn how to preserve your important family papers and photographs.

 
8. Find guides to using NARA’s most popular genealogical records.
 

NARA’s most-useful genealogical records

Here’s a rundown of the most useful genealogical records described at Archives.gov. See the box on page 19 for websites where you can find copies of these records:

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 list just heads of households and the number of males and females by age group. Beginning in 1850, censuses list each person’s name, age, state or country of birth and more, depending on the census. Only a fraction of the 1890 census survives, but other years are quite complete. See the Census Resources page for links to in-depth information, including the type of ancestral details each census recorded.

For details on nonpopulation censuses that exist for some years, such as agricultural, manufacturing and mortality schedules, see the Nonpopulation Census page.

Land records: NARA holds records documenting transfers of US government land, such as bounty land warrants and land entry case files. Bounty land warrants, issued as compensation for military service, begin in 1788. Many bounty land application files for Revolutionary War and War of 1812 service are part of pension files.

 
NARA has more than 10 million land entry case files, including those generated by the Homestead Act of 1862, for the 30 states created from federal land (called public-land states). Search land patents for free on the Bureau of Land Management’s Land Patent Search page, then order the case file from NARA.
 
Military records: NARA holds federal military service, pension, draft registration and other records back to the Revolutionary War, with records from World War I to the present at its National Military Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis. Click the war your ancestor served in to learn about available records and link to related articles. Genealogy sites such as Ancestry.com, FamilySearch.org and Fold3 have digitized many NARA military records.

Some Union Civil War widows’ pension files are digitized on Fold3, but the vast majority of pension records exist only on paper. Order these from NARA. The federal government didn’t create service and pension records for Confederate soldiers; see the Confederate army links and check state archives and other genealogy sites.

Draft registrations may name your ancestor even if he didn’t serve. In 1917 and 1918, 24 million male US residents born between Sept. 11, 1872, and Sept. 12, 1900, completed WWI draft registration cards. Men also registered for the WWII draft, but cards from only one registration—the “Old Man’s Registration”—are open to the public.

Official Military Personnel Files (OMPFs) with a discharge date of 1952 and earlier are open to the public as of 2014, in accordance with the policy to release records 62 years after the service member left the military. 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: Passenger lists cover both immigrants and American citizens returning from travel abroad. NARA has lists of arrivals to the United States from foreign ports between about 1820 and 1982; 20th-century records contain the most passenger information. . These lists are digitized on several genealogy websites. You’ll find four immigration indexes in the Access to Archival Databases search.

Passport applications: US citizens traveling abroad could apply for passports starting in 1789, but with a few exceptions weren’t required to until 1941. Applications have included photos since Dec. 21, 1914. Ancestry.com, Fold3 and FamilySearch.org have digitized applications.

 

Ordering Copies of NARA Records

Many of NARA’s records aren’t online or even microfilmed. The only way to access such records is to order photocopies. NARA has detailed order instructions and request forms for each record type. You can also place your order by mail or online (requires a free registration). This chart shows fees and order forms for most-requested records. For other records, order online or contact NARA staff with the details of your request. A professional researcher local to NARA may be able to make copies for you at a lower cost. Archives.gov also has a list of researchers for hire.

Record    Request Form Copy Fee
Paper to paper (NARA staff)   80 cents per page
Paper to paper (self-service on-site)   25 cents per page
Bounty land warrant application  NATF Form 85 $30
Pre-Civil War pension file  NATF Form 85 $55   
Civil War and later pension file NATF Form 85 $80 for up to 100 pages, plus 70 cents per additional page
Military service files NATF Form 86  $30 (usually free for a veteran named in the record or his/her next-of-kin)
Land entry case file  NATF Form 84  $50

 

Searching Archives.gov databases

Besides guides to its record collections, Archives.gov has a small collection of searchable databases and a catalog of NARA holdings.

Access to Archival Databases (AAD) provides online access to a small percentage of NARA’s records. It lets you search 85 million of the archives’ 10 billion electronic records. AAD’s most useful files for genealogists, almost all 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 casualties of the Korean and Vietnam Wars (click Military Personnel). Click the search button by a database title to read about the records, then click the search button on that page to search.

Online Public Access (OPA) searches NARA’s online catalog, the Archives.gov and presidential library websites, and electronic records of the federal government. It’s most useful for finding obscure records created when your forebears dealt with the federal government. For example, if your ancestor was a fugitive slave, a member of an American Indian tribe, an inmate in a federal penitentiary or a party to a lawsuit tried in a federal court, an OPA search could turn up a description of a collection you should access, an indexed name or a digitized record. A basic search is easiest; try typing in a personal name, federal agency, organizational name or other keyword. Find step-by-step OPA search demos in the December 2013 Family Tree Magazine.

 

Quick Tips

  • Copies of NARA’s microfilmed records may be available through FamilySearch and large libraries. NARA gives its microfilm series publication numbers. For example, complete Revolutionary War pension files are on NARA microfilm publication M804, on 2,670 film reels. Search libraries for the publication number or the collection title.
  • The Family History Library (FHL) in Salt Lake City has many NARA microfilms, which you can rent through a local FamilySearch Center. To match up NARA and FHL film numbers, go to the FamilySearch online catalog and run a keyword search for a NARA publication number. If the records are digitized on FamilySearch.org, the catalog entry links to them. FamilySearch.org also has a chart that converts NARA numbers to FHL numbers as of 2008.
  • Got American Indian roots? If the Dawes Commission accepted your ancestor as a member of the Five Civilized tribes, Dawes Rolls online tutorial offers search strategies and hints for what to do next in your search.
  • Archives.gov has links to its ethnic heritage resource guides for African-American, Chinese, Japanese, American Indian and Hispanic ancestry. You’ll also find recommended resources for researching relatives of other ethnicities.
 

Find NARA Records Online

Many of NARA’s most useful genealogy records are available on third-party websites including these, either free or by subscription.

More online

 
 
 
From the March/April 2014 Family Tree Magazine

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