What is NARA?
As I indicated in Lesson Five, a rich hunting ground for Ancestry Hunters is the Federal Archives. The official name is the National Archives and Records Administration or NARA. NARA acquires, preserves, and makes available for research many wonderful sources for genealogists. The most commonly used by researchers are census, military, passenger and immigration lists, and naturalization records.
According to the Guide to Federal Records in the National Archives of the United States , published in 1995 by NARA, and for sale through the U.S. Government Printing Office, NARA has custody over:
- 300,000 rolls of microfilm
- 1.7 million cubic feet of textual records
- 2.2 million maps and charts
- 2.8 architectural and engineering plans
- 9.2 million aerial photographs
- 123,000 motion picture reels
- 33,000 video recordings
- 178,000 sound recordings
- 7,000 computer data sets
- 7.4 million still pictures
The available records date from colonial times to the present. There are many other records available through the field branches of the National Archives. The address, telephone number, times and holdings of your local branch federal archives may be located in the book by Loretto Dennis Szucs and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking, entitled The Archives: A Guide to the National Archives Field Branches (Salt Lake City; Ancestry, 1988).
Today's researchers can study the holdings of NARA by searching the Internet at the NARA Internet site. We are going to take advantage of the Internet in this lesson on using census and other records of the National Archives; but first let's learn why these records are so important to us.
Why is NARA So Important to Genealogists?
Census, military, passenger, and immigration records provide vital information such as birth, marriage, and death dates and places. They also may provide the names of parents, siblings, children, locations of birth, marriage, and death, and much more. If you have an ancestor who came to the United States after 1820, he or she may have applied for naturalization. Information can be found about his country of origin and his personal life.
Why are Census Records So Important to a Genealogist?
Census records, in particular, can form the basic foundation of your initial research. They are commonly used, relatively easy to read, and available in a variety of locations. Census records, or their equivalents, are also available in many other countries besides the United States. We will however, focus on United States records in this lesson.
In addition to the obvious clues of providing the names of siblings, dates of birth, years of marriage, relationship, and nativity, census records provide other clues. A village name, post office, river way, or township is usually listed on a census page. These location aids could lead you to a county history where knowing an ancestor's post office or township might bring you within pages of information on your direct family, even when the county history is not indexed by surname.
Since people traveled in groups, neighbors could be followed if your own family line disappeared, so census records are good for finding others who might lead you to your own family members. The occupation of an individual could be recorded, as well as whether they owned or rented property. Many clues come from these records. And that information increases in later census years.
Where are Census Records Located?
Even though the original copy of many census records no longer exist, microfilm copies are available at the National Archives as well as many other places including:
- Online through the U.S. Census Collection
- The field branches of the National Archives.
- The Family History Library in Salt Lake City and more than 2600 branch Family History Centers of the Family History Library around the country.
- Major genealogical libraries.
How do you use census records?
Since we normally go from the most recent date to the years further back in time, that is the way we will study census records.
Censuses from 1880 through 1930 are indexed using the Soundex or Miracode format. These formats arrange surnames by similar sound, not spelling, thus grouping together names like Hale and Hailey. Censuses after 1870 are indexed by each houshold member.
Censuses between 1790 and 1870 are indexed on a state-wide basis by the head-of-household. Before 1850 only the head of the household was listed by name. All other members were enumerated by age group: males and females.
There are also some state-wide every-name indexes, and some county-wide every-name, or head-of-household indexes available in major genealogical libraries such as the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, the Library of Congress in Washington, D. C., and the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Using the library catalog of the Family History Library on microfiche or computer might lead you to other county or state, every-name census indexes.
Also available in a nation-wide format is the Accelerated Indexing System (AIS). This is available on microfiche at the Family History Library, local Family History Centers, and major genealogy libraries. The AIS microfiche provides an index of heads of households in the Federal Census for the period of 1790-1850. This means that only the father or husband, widower, or single person would most likely be listed. There are some years in some states that have been indexed after 1850, but it is most complete from 1790 through 1850. The microfiche sections are called "searches." A search is for a particular time period. Search 1 indicates: "Early Colonial Records and US 1600-1819". Searches 5 - 7A cover the 1850 census. Each search in Search 5 covers a particular section of the country and search 7 covers the entire United States. Search 8 is the Mortality Schedule. The Mortality Schedule contains information on people who died within the year prior to the census. The information you find on the AIS, on a CD-ROM index or in a published index includes:
- The name of the head of household,
- The county of residence,
- The page on the census where the individual lives,
- And the town or area in which he lives. Sometimes it will give a District number, a ward, a city, or "No Township Listed" will be indicated.
You can search the entire Census online through the U.S. Census Collection . Once you find a name in the index, you can quickly click to an image of the original census record.
Census Index Searching Techniques
All these indexes can aid you in locating a county and state in which your ancestor lived. This is very important because vital records, land and property records, probate records, etc. are usually maintained at a county or town level. Other important records, such as military or original land patents, might be at a state-wide level. The more you find out about the locality of your individual, the easier it will be to pinpoint research sources.
Even if you do not locate a known relative in an index, you can see what areas of the country had a preponderance of the name you are seeking. Or, if your family was on the move you might see a migration path developing. If his name suddenly disappears in North Carolina and reappears in Ohio, you have an idea of when he was traveling and can better track him that way.
Once you have located your family in an index, go to the original record by ordering the roll of film for that family and verifying the information. If you research using the U.S. Census Collection online, you have access to the index and images of the census record instantly.
There are several good tips for making your search for your ancestor easier and more rewarding.
Tips for Searching for Your Ancestor in a Federal Census Record
Be sure to copy all the information in an index including the name of the county or township, the E.D. (Enumeration District) number, page or sheet number, and anything else provided. Once you locate the page number, be aware that it may apply to two sheets.
Once you find your ancestor on the census, also copy down everything. The best thing to do is to take a photocopy of the census so you will have the neighbors, and other relatives on the same page. Every item on the census can give you a clue. If the census indicates that your ancestor could not read and write, and you have found a handwritten document bearing his signature, you should think twice about it actually being written by YOUR ancestor. It could be someone with the same name.
Although there are errors in the information, it is amazing how often the information is correct and family tradition is incorrect. There were many people with the same names living in the same places, however, so back up your search with a copy of the document.
Because of the use of phonetic spellings, look at all variant name spellings. Sometimes the information was given by a child or a neighbor or, sometimes, the wrong information was provided. People who could not read and write could not always remember exactly when they, or their children, were born. Census records are pretty dependable, but be prepared for some interesting surprises.
To help you learn what particular information is available in each census year, census extract forms and Soundex extract forms are useful.
The Soundex Code
Let's learn how to go about discovering the Soundex numeric code we need.
The letters a, e, i, o, u, w, h, and y are NOT coded. (Just remember "WHY vowels" and you'll remember those not coded.) So take a surname like Clifford. Remove the letters which should be removed according to this rule:
"Clifford" becomes "Clffrd"
Now treat any double letters as though they were one:
"Clffrd" becomes "Clfrd"
Now apply the Soundex coding guide:
- b,p,f,v = 1
- c,s,k,g,j,q,x,z = 2
- d,t = 3
- l = 4
- m,n = 5
- r = 6
Some words like Jackman have two letters side-by side that have the same Soundex code number. Remove the second one. For example C equals 2 using the coding guide above, and K equals 2 as well. Therefore, ignore the K in Jackman. But, if two letters with the same code, such as the M and N in Jackman, are separated by a vowel, code them as separate letters.
The FIRST LETTER of a surname is also NOT CODED. It is written as the beginning of the Soundex Code. Therefore Clifford would be: C 416.
You are probably wondering why it wouldn't be C 4163. This is because every Soundex Code only has a 3-digit number. If a name yields no code numbers then 0's would follow. Lee would be L 000, for example.
Prefixes such as "van", "Von", "Di", "du", etc. are sometimes disregarded, so be careful. Nuns were sometimes recorded as though Sister was their surname and Indians may have shortened names.
Now, try coding your surname.
If you would like to see more information, visit the National Archives on soundexes.
After you have computed a Soundex code, the steps on the next page will help you locate the appropriate microfilm.
Hunting in the Soundex Films
Once you have your surname code, the next important piece of information is the State where the person lived. All census indexes are kept by state.
NARA prints film register booklets for each census year. Go to the 1920 census booklet. Locate the state where the person lived in the year the census was taken. You may not know the state and will need to try several states. This, however, beats looking through hundreds of roles of microfilm. The 1900 through 1920 booklets look very much the same. The 1790 through 1890 censuses are described in one booklet.
By going to the Soundex portion of the booklet. You can look down the columns until you locate the Soundex code number within the range of numbers allowed. Write the "T" number (located beside the state name) which helps locate the drawer the films are in, and then write down the roll number of the film itself (the number to the far left of the Soundex range). This is how the process is done at a federal archives or one of its field branches.
If you are at the archives or a field branch, you would get the Soundex film out of the drawer and put it on the machine.
Having now obtained the correct county, E. D. number, sheet number, line number, and township or city, go to the appropriate census booklet again. Look under the portion covering the actual census films. Go to your state of interest in the census booklet, and go down to the particular county given on the Soundex card. Sometimes enumeration districts are so large you will need to check parts of two rolls of film to cover your district.
Now go to the film cabinet and find the film you want and put it on the machine. Often on the first few pages, the counties listed on that roll will be listed. See how many counties you will need to roll through to get to your county. Roll ahead until you find your county. It is usually written in the far left corner. Now look in the far right hand corner for the enumeration district you are seeking. Once you have found the enumeration district, go to the sheet number (page), and, finally, go to the line on that page where the soundex card indicated you would find your family.
Did you notice the following items:
- Street address
- Birth places
- Birth place of fathers
- Birth place of mothers
- Sibling relationships
- Years of immigration
- If someone was naturalized
- Ability to read or write
- Home ownership
How About the 1910 census?
The 1910 census is located in the same manner as the 1920 with this exception: In 1910 the federal government only produced indexes for 21 states. Other indexes are available for Nevada and Wyoming. There are, however, street indexes to certain large cities which can help locate individuals and guide the researcher to specific census enumeration district numbers.
Those states included in the Soundex or Miracode were: Alabama, Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia
If your family was in one of those states then you should begin with that search. If not, start with the 1900 or 1920 census because every state and every head-of-household was indexed. Also try the city directories for major cities that are not Soundexed. Use the street indexes mentioned above to find the appropriate Enumeration District.
The Unique 1890 and 1880 Censuses
The 1890 census is extremely limited, but still check the census guides in case your family may be listed: most of it was destroyed by fire. All censuses between 1880 and 1920 list the birth state or country of the parents of each individual.
The 1880 census was the first one in which the Soundex indexing system was used. However, individuals were only indexed if there were children 10 years of age or under living in the home.
Remember: in the 1880 Soundex, only heads of families who had children age ten (10) or younger living with them in the census year of 1880 were put in the index. People without children 10 or under are actually on the census , but not in the index. So, if you do not find your direct line on the 1880 Soundex, can you think of any relatives or other families who may have had younger children and lived nearby? This might get you within pages of your own family and then a page-by-page search could be conducted. If you know the county and township of your family, it is also possible to search the census to find them. An index, however, usually saves much time.
The Soundex is helpful if the county of residence is unknown but you know the state. All names from a given state are listed together in the Soundex. When you read the Soundex, you will not be reading the actual census. The actual census indicates so much more than the Soundex Card.
Remember, unless there was a child living in the home age 10 or under in 1880, the head of the household will not be indexed in the 1880 Soundex.
Censuses prior to 1850 recorded only the head of household. They are still quite valuable because they indicate at least:
- When someone becomes the head of a household (they begin to appear on the census record).
- When someone dies (they disappear from the census records).
- When someone moves from an area (they disappear from one area and appear in another).
- Who they lived by for neighborhood searches (by recording the people living on either side of them).
- The longevity of family members.
- The size of families and how many were males and females to unravel two families of the same name.
- Their wealth (by what they claimed in the way of property or slaves).
- Whether they were foreign born.
- If they were free men.
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