The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), curator of federal government records, has made it easier to find documents that could shed light on your ancestors’ lives: Online Public Access (OPA), NARA’s new catalog, lets you cover in a single search what previously took at least three separate searches. OPA replaces the Archival Research Catalog (ARC), which shut down over the summer, plus it searches all web pages on the NARA and presidential library websites. In addition, it searches the Electronic Records Archives (ERA), which preserves the electronic records of the federal government.
What can you expect to find in OPA? For one, descriptions of federal government records genealogists use, such as censuses, passenger lists and military pension files. But OPA is perhaps most useful for ferreting out more-obscure records created when your forebears dealt with the federal government. For example, if an ancestor was a fugitive slave, a recognized member of a Native American tribe, an inmate in a federal penitentiary or a party to a lawsuit tried in a federal court, NARA could have the records to prove it. Most listings in OPA just describe the records, but sometimes you can view images of original documents. If the records haven’t been digitized, you can request copies.
Getting NARA records that pertain to your family may still be challenging. OPA doesn’t index every name listed in most records, limiting its usefulness for genealogists. To find an ancestor in unindexed records, you could look for relevant databases by searching on a term like fugitive slaves, civil case or criminal case, combined with a place name, the name of a federal penitentiary, or another term, and then browse through. Unless you’re already aware of records at NARA that mention your ancestor, this strategy is still a long shot.
NARA’s Search Tips for Family Historians has links to military records and Indian rolls digitized on the NARA site that aren’t searchable by name in OPA. You still can separately search indexes to 19th-century passenger lists, WWII army enlistments and casualties of the Korean and Vietnam Wars in NARA’s Access to Archival Databases (AAD). These two examples show you how to use OPA.
Access Digitized Records
1. OPA records aren’t limited to famous people, but let’s say you heard that your relative Clyde Barrow got on the wrong side of the law. Try a search on the first and last name (Clyde Barrow), and on the name as a phrase with the first name or last name first (“Clyde Barrow” OR “Barrow, Clyde”). You could try the Advanced Search, but its options don’t seem to add usefulness for finding family history records.
4. You can download a page as a PDF, or scroll down for an option to download the entire file in PDF format.
Access Offline Records
1. John H. Pennington was involved in international trade, so he might have dealt with the federal government. Try searching on variations of his name as a phrase: “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.”
2. Searching on “Pennington, J.H.” produces a match on a record from the State Department. Click on the title or the URL to see more details.
3. The description says the record is not online and directs you to contact NARA to obtain a copy. After sending an e-mail message to NARA with the catalog reference, your contact information and an inquiry regarding how to get a copy of the record, you’ll receive notice that a staff member will respond via letter, fax or e-mail in about two or three weeks.