The National Archives

American National Archvies for genealogy research
The National Archives of the United States

When doing any genealogy research in the United States, you will undoubtedly end up finding some sources in the National Archives.  It’s one of the greatest collections of historical information in the country. You’d best know how to use it.

Where are the Archives?
It’s not just one building so you can’t just show up and tour all of the Archives at once. The complete collection of material is actually housed over a number of different locations, including museums, libraries and smaller archive centers. The main facility is in Washington D.C, where you can also see historical icons such as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. This is the main place where researchers go but it will depend on the documents you are particularly looking for. Their website has a list of all locations and the details on visiting and seeing materials.

What Genealogy Material is There?
Heck, what isn’t there? The number of documents that they hold is impressive to say the least, and they cover a huge range of potentially important areas from a genealogy perspective. To give you a quick idea of what you may be able to find there, their documents include:

  • Land deeds
  • Court files
  • Immigration files
  • Ship passenger lists
  • Census records
  • Military records
  • Naturalization files
  • Tax records
  • Passport applications
  • Federal employee records
  • Prison records
  • Quite a bit more

Now, you can’t expect to find a complete and comprehensive collection for every single type of document for every simple person. But even so, there is a wealth of potential documentation waiting to be explored. Be aware that vital records are not held at the National Archives so you will not find any birth, death or marriage records there. That is still maintained at the state level.

Accessing the Archives
Most of the archives is still in the paper-only state, which means only a small fraction of their holdings can be researched online, though there are many indexes and catalogs that can be checked this way. You just won’t be able to see the final document even if you find its entry in the index.

Though not free, the archives do have a good system in place for ordering copies. Their website has a complete fee schedule if you want to go that route, but you need to locate the documents you want first. They will not do searches on your behalf. That includes getting copies of microfilm if that is the form your files are in.

The archives’ website has a genealogy section which is an excellent place to start if you are not familiar with researching the National Archives. That is where you can find out more about the types of documents that are of interest for genealogy and how to search through the online catalogs. Once you find your way around, be prepared to discover plenty of new genealogical information at the Archives.