The United States National Archives and Records Administration has a
vast collection of records that could potentially help you with your family
research. But how do you know what is available and where to find it?
The following text is excerpted from the revised edition of the Guide
to Genealogical Research in the National Archives, published by the
National Archives Trust Fund Board. This excerpt briefly describes what
you can and can't expect from the National Archives records collection,
and what resources can guide you to the records you are seeking.
to Genealogical Research in the National Archives is an excellent
resource for learning exactly what is available in the National Archives.
It gives details about a variety of record types, including census records,
passenger arrival lists, naturalization records, military records, and
Today, more and more Americans are discovering the rewards of genealogy
the study of the history of families and the documentation of lines
of ancestry and descent. The National Archives and Records Administration
(NARA), the keeper of the historically valuable records of the federal
government, can aid genealogical research in many ways.
Some of the records in NARA help to establish lines of ancestry. In the
records, the relationships between generations of a family are often given
or implied. Genealogists often use census records and pension applications
for this purpose. Other federal records give information about individuals
physical descriptions in some cases, places of birth and residence,
and activities and occupations and thereby expand the researcher's
picture of the life of an ancestor. The records that document military
service, immigration, and the settlement of public domain lands are perhaps
those most widely used to trace ancestry, but many other groups of records
are full of information useful to genealogists. In fact, every record
contains, even if indirectly, some information about some person.
Three important limitations, however, face genealogists doing research
in these archives. First, NARA keeps only federal records. Birth, marriage,
and death the milestones of life and the backbone of genealogy
have never been the first concern of the federal government, and
the best evidence of these events will be found, if it exists, in family,
local, and state records.
Second, the colonial period of American history is not documented in
the National Archives; very few records predate the Revolutionary War.
Most of the records described in this guide pertain to the nineteenth
century, a time when government did not touch the lives of most Americans
to the extent that it does today. Wartime was an exception; consequently,
military records are useful to many genealogists.
The third limitation arises from the nature of archives: records are
arranged to reflect their original purposes, usually just as they were
kept by the agency that created them. They cannot be arranged in ways
that might seem most helpful to genealogists, partly because family history
is only one of the many present-day uses of archives. Names are not listed
alphabetically in census records, for example; the records are arranged
geographically because the primary reason for taking the census was to
determine a state's representation in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Because of these limitations, a researcher should never ask an archivist
for information about an ancestor about whom only the name is known. The
researcher should come to the archives with information about when and
how, and if possible, where an ancestor came into contact with the federal
government; sometimes the exact date and place and circumstances of contact
The National Archives and Records Administration publishes several different
kinds of finding aids to assist researchers in using its vast holdings.
Some record groups are described in inventories or preliminary inventories
(PIs). Such finding aids contain a history of the organization and functions
of the agency that created the records and descriptions of the series in
the record group....
Other types of finding aids include guides, reference information papers,
and special lists relating to particular subjects. Such finding aids may
cover many record groups as guides do or focus on a specific
type of document within one record group as some special lists
do.... The Select List of Publications of the National Archives and
Records Service (General Information Leaflet No. 3) provides a complete
list of finding aids, ordering instructions, and, where applicable, prices.
This list is available from the Technical Administration, Washington,
DC 20408. Finding aids published before 1968 have been microfilmed as
National Archives Microfilm Publication M248, 24 rolls.
Many series of records that have high research value have been microfilmed
by the National Archives and Records Administration. Generally, if a series
has been filmed, the film is used for research rather than the original.
This extensive microfilm program, underway since the 1940s, has resulted
in two notable achievements: preservation and enhanced access. Priceless,
fragile, and awkwardly bound documents can be removed from reference circulation
where they would have been exposed to damage and deterioration from ordinary
use. Also, microfilm makes valuable records available to researchers in
many parts of the county. All National Archives microfilm publications
are available for use in the National Archives building. Many of the important
microfilm publications including microfilm of federal census schedules,
1790-1910 are available in the archives branches at National Archives
Centers (NACs) in 11 metropolitan regions.
In addition, many state and local archives, historical and genealogical
societies, libraries, and research institutions have purchased copies
of National Archives microfilm and make it available to their patrons.
Individuals can buy rolls to use on a microfilm reading machine at home
or with permission at a local library. Because microfilmed records are
widely distributed, researchers should explore their own community resources
completely before planning research trips to Washington, D.C.
Many microfilm publications numbers begin with "M." Most of
these are accompanied by descriptive pamphlets that contain thorough explanations
of the origin, content, and arrangement of the records. Other microfilm
numbers begin with "T." These publications do not include explanatory
introductions or notes. Both "M" and "T" publications
are available for use in the Microfilm Research Room in the National Archives
Archives Microfilm, Resources for Research: A Comprehensive Catalog
(1996) lists the microfilm publications available from the National Archives.
The publications are also indexed by Record Group, publication number,
and subject. Federal population census records are described in Federal
Population Censuses, 1790-1910 (1997), 1900 Federal Population
Censuses (1978), 1910 Federal Population Censuses (1982), and
1920 Federal Population Censuses (1992).
Other catalogs describe microfilm publications of interest to genealogists:
Immigrant and Passenger Arrivals (1991), Genealogical and Biographical
Research (1983), American Indians (1995), and Military Service
Records (1985). For information on ordering these catalogs, see the
online order page listed above. In some instances, National Archives microfilm
publications are available through interlibrary loan. For information,
contact your local library.