If you’ve ever suspected the US government is keeping files on you, you’re not being paranoid. Uncle Sam has reams of paperwork on most Americans—and not just us modern folks, but also our ancestors. The bad news is that the tax man knows who you are and where you live. But on the bright side, when you’ve hit a genealogy brick wall—particularly in the 20th century—tapping government sources such as Social Security applications, naturalization records and FBI files can lead to the breakthrough you need.
Accessing many of these records requires filing a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, which isn’t as scary or complicated as it sounds. Though you may associate FOIA requests with investigative reporters, ordinary folks—not the heirs of Woodward and Bernstein—file the vast majority of them. Some records don’t call for FOIA requests, but require you to jump through other hoops. Many naturalization, FBI and passport records are available online at sites like Ancestry.com and FamilySearch, and through the US Citizenship and Immigration Services’ Genealogy program. Learn more with the resources below.
Resources for Finding Ancestors’ Federal Records
- FOIA Reference Guide
- Principal FOIA Contacts at Federal Agencies
- Federal Open Government Guide
- Sample FOIA Letter
- FOIA Letter Generator
- Federal Citizen Information Center, or call 1-800-FED-INFO (1-800-333-4636)
- Social Security Administration
- Social Security History
- US Customs and Immigration Services
- US Department of State
- National Archives FOIA Guide