Jul 9, 2021

Using the National Archives

July 9, 2021

Recently I watched a recorded presentation about preparing for research trips. It focused on getting the most from trips to  various archives, especially local, regional and state. Most of the presentation was well done, and while most of it wasn’t new to me, it reinforced my ideas about researching at archives.


However, there was one topic in the presentation that surprised me. The presenter mentioned that she had never been to the National Archives and felt no interest in doing so. She recommended the more local archives as being more useful places to find records for the average genealogist.


This statement jarred me from my head-nodding agreement with her recommendations about archives. I can understand why an experienced genealogist may have never visited the National Archives in Washington, D.C. I have only been there once, although I certainly hope to be able to research there again sooner rather than later.


Washington. D.C. is a long trip for many of us who live in Colorado or other western states. It’s also a destination packed with historical monuments and other sightseeing venues which may compete with the time available to spend at the National Archives. That doesn’t mean that using the National Archives is not worthwhile – even without visiting in person.


While visiting the National Archives in person may not be feasible for many of us, the National Archives itself certainly should not be overlooked as a genealogical source. Luckily for stay-at-home genealogists, the National Archives has a good website ( ). It describes the types of records that the Archives holds and how to access them. In addition, there are articles describing various record sets. For example, yesterday, I was looking at the National Archives website for information about records available from the War of 1812. I found a very helpful article called “Genealogical Records of the War of 1812” by Stuart L. Butler ( ) which helped me understand what records I might expect to find about my War of 1812 ancestor.


Some of the types of records that the Archives holds will be available nowhere else. These include Land Entry Case files which are the records that detail the transfer of public lands to private ownership. For folks whose ancestors lived in the western part of the United States, homestead claims were a common way to gain land ownership. Copies of these files can be ordered online from the National Archives website.


Military records are another valuable record type held by the National Archives. Like homestead records, military records can be ordered from the National Archives website. Military records include Compiled Service Member Records and Military Pension records from the Revolutionary War forward. If you want to know where and what your ancestor was doing while he was in the service, these are the records to access. Pension records are another important set of documents because they include many details about a soldier’s military service including dates of service, where the soldier served and often many medical details. They can also include proof of a soldier’s marriage and names and birthdates of children.


Ordering records from the National Archives is relatively simple but can become expensive. For example, Civil War Pension Files cost $80, and Land Entry Files are $50. The information they contain is usually well worth the price. The last Civil War Pension File that I ordered was over two inches thick and it took two large envelopes to contain it. Inside were decades worth of information concerning the soldier and copies of two marriage records (he outlived two wives), medical documents describing the lifelong after effects of his wound suffered at Kennesaw Mountain during the War, as well as his death certificate.


While I can understand why a genealogist might never be able to visit the National Archives in Washington, there is no reason why he or she cannot use the Archives from home. When you consider the huge holdings of the Archives, there are almost certainly records that can help your own genealogy. Whether your ancestor was a homesteader, a Patriot during the Revolution or a soldier during the Civil War, the National Archives is the place to find records about him. Even though those records won’t be free, it’s certainly going to be cheaper than a trip from Colorado to the East Coast (although I admit the trip sounds like a lot more fun!).


Far from being an unnecessary source, the National Archives and Records Administration should be one of a genealogist’s go-to sources. There’s a lot waiting for you on their website!


Carol Stetser

Researcher/Director at Large