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Research Tip 7: Federal and State Records

by Raymond S. Wright III, Ph.D., AG
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What You'll Find Find at State and National Archives
Would you look for passenger lists at a state archive or the national archives? In this tip, Raymond Wright summarizes where you're likely to find the records that you need.
Looking for microfilmed copies of original records from the localities where your ancestors lived? The first place to look is your nearest LDS Family History Library. Search the Family History Library Catalog under the heading for the town, county, state, and other jurisdictions you have found using the gazetteers and atlases discussed in Tip 6. If you find that there are few records listed for the localities where your family lived, it's time to discover where the records are.

First, check with the government agencies that might have the information. In the United States, local, state, and national government agencies keep their records until they are no longer in demand or until space is depleted. Before destroying old records, officials normally decide which records warrant preservation. Records judged useful for future agency needs or records of historical value are then transferred to an archive or records center.

The archival arm of the federal government is the National Archives and Records Administration. This agency maintains two archives in the Washington, D.C. area and regional archives in several states. To learn more about these archives check at your local library for The Archives: A Guide to the National Archives Field Branches (Loretto Dennis Szucs and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking, Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1988) and Guide to Genealogical Research in the National Archives (Rev. ed., Washington, D.C.: National Archives Trust Fund Board, 1985).

To remain current with the many changes taking place at the National Archives, read Prologue: Quarterly of the National Archives and Records Administration. Check your local library's periodical collection to learn if they subscribe to this important journal. The National Archives has a home page on the Internet and will also respond to reference questions by telephone. The National Archives E-mail address is: inquire@nara.gov. You can also write them at: National Archives and Records Administration, User Services Division (NNU), 8601 Adelphi Road, College Park, MD 20740-6001.

Researchers commonly turn to the National Archives to look for censuses, military service records, land records, selective service records (draft records), ships' passenger lists and naturalization records. Remember that the passenger lists and many censuses are available only as microfilm copies. The original records may have been destroyed or given to other institutions.

All state governments fund a state archives. Sometimes they may be part of a state historical society or a state history division. An Internet search may turn up home pages for state agencies in states of interest to you. Information on state archives can be found online or in the Genealogist's Address Book. States often conducted censuses at intervals that fell between federal decennial censuses. Ann Lainhart's book State Census Records (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1992) contains details about these important records.

State military records are key family history resources. Researchers may forget that before World War I, the standing army in the United States was small. Most of the men under arms were part of state or local militias. State archives generally have preserved the records of these units, some predating the Revolutionary War. State historical societies are also important repositories of newspapers, local histories, biographies, and genealogies. Both Eichholz and Bentley devote space in their books to addresses of state historical societies.


About the Author
Raymond S. Wright III is a professor at Brigham Young University (Provo, Utah), where he has taught courses in family history and genealogy since 1990. He received his M.A. and Ph.D. in history from the University of Utah. An Accredited Genealogist of the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, Wright was manager of library operations there from 1979-1990. During his employment, Wright did numerous research assignments in archives and libraries in the United States and many foreign countries. He is a specialist on genealogical records in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Wright has served twice as chairman of the American Library Association's Genealogy Committee. He is also author of The Genealogist's Handbook: Modern Methods for Researching Family History.

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