You can’t go to Washington, DC, without seeing the Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Bill of Rights at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) headquarters. As a genealogist, you probably know NARA preserves not only key documents from the nation’s founding, but also the most useful federal records for researching your ancestry: US censuses, military pension files, ships’ passenger lists and more. (With a few exceptions, NARA doesn’t have state and local records such as vital records, court records or state censuses.)
But even if you’re a pro at using NARA’s records in person or on microfilm, you might not have explored the National Archives Web site. True, the site has little information on specific ancestors: NARA has approached the records access part of its mission by working with sites such as Footnote
to digitize documents and put them online. (Under these nonexclusive agreements, NARA gets copies of digitized records and makes them free at NARA facilities.) But NARA’s Web site can help you identify and access records with information on your ancestors. It has several searchable databases with names, and yes, a few digitized records. Admittedly, the sprawling site can be hard to use, but our guide highlights its best bets for your genealogy search.
Navigating the site
NARA comprises 22 regional research locations and 13 presidential libraries that serve genealogists, archivists, historians and federal employees. Its Web site has dozens of pages geared toward family researchers, but finding answers in the maze of links is no easy task. Here are the most useful resources you can access through NARA’s home page:
- AAD: Access to Archival Databases is NARA’s system for searching a variety of indexes. (Turn the page to “Searching for ancestors.”)
- ARC: The Archival Research Catalog has descriptions of NARA record holdings.
- Genealogists/Family Historians: Located in the green box on the home page (or go to <archives.gov/genealogy>), this page (shown below, along wih NARA’s home page) is the best jumping-off point to NARA’s online genealogy resources. Besides records guides (next section), you’ll find the Beginning Your Genealogical Research at NARA PowerPoint presentation (link at bottom right).
- Genealogy/Getting Started: Click this link in the Most Requested box on the home page (or go to <archives.gov/genealogy/start-research>) for links to descriptions of NARA’s most popular genealogy records and several databases. Here’s a look at this page:
Getting a helping hand
The National Archives Web site also offers guides to frequently used record collections. These handy guides aren’t gathered in one central location. Your best bet is to access them directly through the links here:
- Censuses: Get tips for using population and nonpopulation census records from 1790 to 1930, plus Indian census rolls from 1885 to 1940. Use links on the left to navigate to different pages of the guide.
- Military records: Learn which of NARA’s military service records, pension applications and bounty land warrant applications may apply to your ancestor. Particularly useful is the information on records available for soldiers in wars from the American Revolution to Vietnam.
- Immigration records: Wonder which port your immigrant ancestor arrived at? Study this list of passenger records at NARA for US ports, and years covered. You also can link to several immigration indexes in AAD.
- Naturalization records: Learn whether your ancestor’s naturalization papers might be at NARA or elsewhere, and how to access them.
- Land records: This guide explains NARA’s 10 million-plus land entry case files documenting the transfer of public lands from the US government to private citizens. Those include homestead files and bounty- land warrant applications for military service. You also can link to the Bureau of Land Management’s patent search.
- Other guides: Click Research Topics for Genealogists in the left margin of either genealogy page for links to research advice on topics such as African-American and other ethnicities, post office records, citation help and lots more. Click Genealogy Articles Featured in Prologue Magazine (under Highlighted resources) for in-depth information on a range of topics.
Searching for ancestors
If you just want to search for names in your family tree, use AAD. AAD provides online indexes to 85 million of NARA’s 10 billion electronic records (“record” in this case refers to one listing, not a historical document). That includes immigration and military indexes, and digitized photographs. The most useful genealogical indexes cover 19th-century immigrants, WWII Army enlistment records, and Korean and Vietnam war casualties. Be wary of the sometimes misleading database titles: For example, 70 percent of passengers in Records for Passengers Who Arrived at the Port of New York During the Irish Famine gave Ireland as their native country, but the rest came from 32 other countries.
You can search all AAD records from the AAD home page. Click on Genealogy/Personal History to search all AAD records in that category, or select an individual database to search. Click Browse by Subjects to find databases related to the American Civil War, immigration, prisoners of war and more.
To search, type a name or place in the box and click Search. Click Advanced Search to focus your query: To search on alternate spellings, type all of them in the box labeled “with any of the values.” To search on a personal name, enter a last name followed by a first name in the Exact Phrase box. Try adding a middle initial or name, Jr. or Sr. Click in the View Record column in the results list to see more details. Click here for step-by-step instructions for searching passenger lists on AAD. Ancestry.com
subscribers can save time and frustration by using that site’s more-easily searchable versions of the same databases.
You also can search for names in ARC, but it’s best used for topical searches for records that may mention your ancestor. ARC describes paper, electronic and microfilm materials at NARA research facilities and presidential libraries. It also describes the electronic records in AAD and links to those records. ARC covers 63 percent of NARA holdings, including some digitized records. Before searching ARC, review its Guide for Genealogists and Family Historians
When you search ARC, you’re searching record descriptions, not the records themselves, so most personal names that appear in records aren’t found in ARC. It’s still worth searching on a person’s name, but you’re better off searching by topic (such as African-American or Indian school) to identify record collections that could name your ancestor. The ARC Guide has a list of suggested keywords. If you get too many matches, click on Refine Search and add another term, such as the name of a state, to focus your search. Click here for an example of an ARC search
When you find a match of interest, click on the title and then on the tabs to learn more about that source. The Digital Copies tab lets you browse through a digital version, if one’s available. If it’s not, you’ll need to access the records using one of the methods in the next section.
If the records you want aren’t digitized on NARA’s Web site, you need to determine the most convenient and inexpensive way to access them. Here are the options:
Reduce your cost by taking a different route: The professional researchers listed on NARA’s website
can visit NARA and, working by the hour, often can provide copies faster and cheaper. I paid a researcher a total of $81.50 for copies of two Civil War service files and two Civil War pension files, which I received within two weeks. If I’d ordered online, the same copies would’ve cost $200 and arrived in two to four months.
- Microfilm: Some of NARA’s microfilmed records are available through interlibrary loan (ask your librarian for assistance). It costs $3.50 per roll to rent one to four rolls of microfilm, plus $6 shipping per order. You pay less per roll for bulk orders. You can search the National Archives’ microfilm catalog online (click Microfilm). Search on a state to see film that might mention your ancestors.
If the film you need isn’t available for rent, don’t buy it at $85 per roll. Instead, see if the Family History Library
or another library has the same film. Then you can rent it or borrow it via interlibrary loan for a small fee.
- Online: FamilySearch (free), HeritageQuest Online (free through many libraries) and the subscription sites Ancestry.com and Footnote have many NARA indexes and records (some collections are incomplete). If you’re at a NARA facility, you can access all these services free.
- Visit: Each NARA regional facility stores federal agency and government records from its respective region (for example, the Pacific Region in San Bruno, Calif., has Chinese immigration case files from 1903 to 1915, and the Central Plains Region in Kansas City, Mo., has some Minnesota naturalization records). All the facilities have US census microfilm. NARA’s headquarters in Washington DC and the “Archives II” building in College Park, Md., have passenger list microfilm and most pre-WWI military records. (Later military service records are at NARA’s National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis.)
From the September 2009 Family Tree Magazine