NARA from Home

By Rick Crume Premium

Ready to tackle the US National Archives but can’t find the time to visit the nation’s capital or the regional facilities? You can access a portion of the archives’ holdings without leaving home — through the National Archives and Records Administration’s (NARA) redesigned Web site. NARA’s online residence doesn’t hold all the genealogical treasures its brick-and-mortar siblings do, but it does have advantages: It’s free — no photocopying fees or plane tickets to Washington, DC. And it’s always open — you won’t encounter locked doors (or menacing security guards) if you’re itching to do research at 2 a.m.

To maximize NARA’s online options, though, you need to learn what the site has to offer and where to find the records you need. You’ll want to start by browsing the Web versions of the archives’ finding aids.

First, go to the National Archives home page <> and click on Research Room, Genealogy, then Research Topics for guides to ethnic research, ship passenger lists and census, military, vital, immigration and naturalization records.

Click back to the genealogy page <> and hit the Genealogy Publications link, then the Catalogs of Microfilm Publications link. From there, you can access several online catalogs of NARA holdings; they cover census records, American Indians, black studies, immigration and military records. You can also read selected articles from the National Archives’ journal, Prologue. The catalog and journal pages contain a lot of helpful information. But if you can’t stand to read long blocks of text on your computer screen, you might want to print them to read offline.

The golden ARC

The most important catalog on the NARA site is its new Archival Research Catalog (ARC). ARC describes the National Archives’ holdings and replaces its prototype, NAIL, the NARA Archival Information Locator database. ARC lists about 20 percent of the vast holdings of the National Archives system, including the regional archives and the presidential libraries. The National Archives hopes to catalog 95 percent of its holdings in ARC by 2007. ARC holds not only bibliographic references, but also 124,000 digital images of photographs and documents. As ARC grows, it will help you identify more resources for your genealogical research and view digital images of other document collections.

To access ARC, go to the NARA home page and select Archival Research Catalog (ARC) from the pull-down menu, or go right to <>. Click on Search Hints for Genealogical Data in ARC, and you’ll find instructions for searching several databases, including Chinese Exclusion Acts case files, World War II casualty lists and a number of American Indian databases. Print these instructions for easy reference (click on Print-Friendly Version), and then you’re ready to start searching.

Name that ancestor

Searching for forebears by name can be tricky because only a small percentage of entries in ARC have index terms yet. But you could get lucky. Type just a last name or both a first name and a last name in the keyword(s) box. A search for Meriwether Lewis brings up five hits, including “Receipt for Wine and Kegs Purchased by Meriwether Lewis for the Expedition to the West, 06/01/1803” and “List of Indian Presents Purchased by Meriwether Lewis in Preparation for the Expedition to the West, 1803.” Of course, you’ll have better luck finding references to famous people, but the catalog cites average citizens, too.

You can also browse a list of names cataloged in ARC. From the ARC Basic Search page <>, click on the Advanced Search button. Scroll down the page and hit the Lookup button beside Person Name(s). Then click on the first letter of the person’s last name and keep pressing the Next Page button until you reach the place where the name should appear. Finally, click the name to view the related catalog entries.

Photos in a flash

In addition to documents, you can search and view more than 57,000 digitized pictures in ARC. While you might not find a picture of a family member, the catalog has many historical photographs that could enhance your family history. Go to the ARC Basic Search page, check the box for “Descriptions of Archival Materials linked to digital copies,” and under Type of Archival Materials, select Photographs and other Graphic Materials. Then type your search terms in the keyword(s) box.

Search for Mathew Brady, and you can page through thumbnails of hundreds of Brady’s Civil War-era photographs. You’ll find pictures with titles such as “Gen. Edward Ferrero and staff of seven” and “Officers of 4th New Jersey Infantry.” Many of these photographs show a general and his staff. You might have luck searching on the name of the commanding officer of your Civil War ancestor’s regiment. Some Brady photographs such as “View of Gettysburg” depict battle scenes; others such as “Ruins of Richmond, Va.” show the war’s aftermath.

Get map happy

ARC also contains digitized maps, including many from the Civil War era. To browse the maps, start at the ARC Basic Search page. Check the box for “Descriptions of Archival Materials linked to digital copies” (it’s below the keyword field), select Maps and Charts under Type of Archival Materials, and click on the Go button. To limit the results to maps of a specific battlefield, type the name of the place in the keyword(s) box. Search on Bull Run, for example, and you’ll find two maps linked to digital copies. Select Large Image below the thumbnail of a photograph or map to view a full-sized file; then, save a copy to your computer’s hard drive. For instructions to order a reproduction of a photo or map from the National Archives, go to <>.

Use our tips when you log on to explore the National Archives Web site yourself. You’ll open the door to its online treasures — and you can even wear your pajamas while you research.

From the April 2003 issue of Family Tree Magazine.