5 Branches of US Military Records for Genealogy
Finding US military records for genealogy depends on which of the five branches your relative served in:
- Air Force
- or Coast Guard.
Here, military expert Michael Strauss introduces each one and tells us where to look for their records, both online and offline.
Over the last 30+ years doing genealogy research, I’ve discovered that nearly all of my family members who served in the military were in the United States Army. But I have been occasionally surprised to find relatives who served in other branches of the military, like my grandfather’s first cousin, Russell G. Strauss, shown below.
His uniform indicated that he was a third class petty officer in the Navy during the war. I looked further at his uniform and noticed a diamond shaped “S” as part of the insignia. This military occupation indicated that he was a specialist that would require further research. I spoke with a couple of my older family members who knew Russell. All of my family interviewed said that he in the military police (M.P.) during the war. With additional research, I discovered that his insignia was that of the Shore Patrol. On Ancestry.com, I found his application for compensation from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania when he served in the Shore Patrol in Norfolk, Virginia as part of his military duty:
Finding US military records for genealogy
If you’d like to learn gems like these about your relatives, you need to know that US military records for genealogy research are organized separately for the five branches: Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and the Coast Guard. Some branches have more online research resources than others. In a future article, I’ll talk about identifying military service details based on pictures like I did above. This article introduces the five branches and where to start learning about them.
US Army and its records
The largest of the five military branches dates back to June 14, 1775, during the early days of the Revolutionary War. Prior to the formation of the Army, each colony had companies and battalions of Associators and local militia. With the war, the need for a professional standing army to fight the British saw the formation of the Continental Army.
With the end of the Revolutionary War, the Army disbanded in 1783 after the signing of the Treaty of Paris. Later in 1796, the two legions formed under the command of General Anthony Wayne would later become the nucleus of the United States Army. The Encyclopedia Britannica published this nice article on the history of the Army from its inception to the present.
A number of excellent genealogical resources are available to search for ancestors who served in the United States Army since the beginning. These databases are found on Ancestry, Fold3, and FamilySearch. One of the largest collections of records covers the United States Regular Army enlistments from 1798 to 1914 (available by subscription at Ancestry.com). Searching the card catalogs of Ancestry.com, Fold3 and FamilySearch will yield many databases that contain information about soldiers who served and sacrificed their lives with the Army over the last two centuries.
US Navy and its records
For those who had ancestors who trod the quarterdeck of a frigate, the United States Navy has a fine tradition of service. On October 13, 1775, it was officially established by an Act passed by the Continental Congress. At the end of the Revolutionary War, it was disbanded but again was reestablished under the Naval Act of 1794, which created the Navy as a permanent branch of the military.
The earlier period of naval history is called the “Old Navy.” It was the age of wooden sailing ships. Still later came the birth of the ironclads (during the Civil War). The later period, called the “New Navy,” occurred with further innovations in the late nineteenth century, as the United States transformed into a global power.
The United States Navy website has a nice background history of the service. Numerous databases and searches for records of the Navy covering multiple war period detailing pensions, continental sailors, muster rolls, ships logs, and cruise books are located on Ancestry.com, Fold3, and FamilySearch. Consult each database individually for records of interest.
Another organization related to the Navy is the United States Merchant Marines. Although not officially a branch of the military, the Merchant Marines sacrificed and lost lives since the days of the Revolutionary War, carrying out their missions of supply and logistics during times of war. Here’s an excellent website on the history of the Merchant Marines.
US Air Force and its records
Officially the youngest of the military branches, the Air Force was formed as part of the Security Act of 1947. But the Air Force and military aviation history began under the authority of the United States Army starting on August 1, 1907, when it was organized under the name of the Aeronautical Division of the Signal Corps. Over the next 30 years the service changed names several times:
- Aviation Section of the Signal Corps (1914-1918);
- Division of Military Aeronautics (1918);
- Air Service of the United States Army (1918-1926);
- United States Army Air Corps (1926-1941);
- United States Army Air Forces (1941-1947).
In that final year, it was separated as its own organization as it is known today. Click here for a complete history of the Air Force from 1907 to the present.
Two excellent online sources covering the early history of the Air Force from World War I and World War II are located on Fold3:
US Marines and its records
This elite branch of the military began with the organization of the Continental Marines on November 19, 1775. The mission of the Marines initially comprised ship-to-ship fighting, security on-board naval vessels, and assistance in landing force operations. This mission would continue to evolve over the years.
At the end of the Revolutionary War, the Marines were disbanded (like the Navy). But along with the Navy, under the Naval Act of 1794 the United States Marines were again re-established and would serve faithfully in every major war period and in peacetime between conflicts. The Marines will forever remain true to their motto of “Semper Fidelis” or “Always Faithful” as they continue to live up to their long-running tradition of honor and service. Here’s an interesting (and accurate) history of the Marine Corps.
Ancestry.com has an excellent online genealogical resource for discovering Marine Corps ancestors: fully searchable Marine Corps muster rolls from 1798 to 1958 for enlistees.
US Coast Guard and its records
Although first envisioned as a force of revenue tax collectors, the Coast Guard’s ability to conduct diverse missions during peacetime and war became the hallmark of this service. Its history dates back to August 4, 1790. Established as the Revenue Cutter Marines under the direction of Alexander Hamilton, the name was changed in 1894 to the Revenue Cutter Service. In 1915, Congress passed and signed the “Act to Create Coast Guard.” In so doing, the United States Live Saving Service and Revenue Cutter Service came together. Later, in 1939, the United States Light House Service was added to form the modern-day United States Coast Guard.
The complete history of the United States Coast Guard from 1790 is online at its Historians Office. It includes information about each of the separate organizations that came together to form the Coast Guard.
Genealogy giant Ancestry.com has a collection of casualties of the Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard. Very few additional online sources are available online for this branch of the service. Researchers must access these documents and records onsite at the National Archives in Washington, DC.
More on US military records for genealogy
As the Military Minutes contributor to the free Genealogy Gems Podcast, Michael Strauss is systematically guiding us through the world of US military records for genealogy. Click above to listen–or below to read up on what he’s already taught here at Genealogy Gems:
Author: Michael Strauss, AG
Michael Strauss, AG is the principal owner of Genealogy Research Network and an Accredited Genealogist since 1995. He is a native of Pennsylvania and a resident of Utah and has been an avid genealogist for more than 30 years. Strauss holds a BA in History and is a United States Coast Guard veteran.
Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links and Genealogy Gems will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on these links (at no additional cost to you). Thank you for supporting Genealogy Gems!
How to Research Your Ancestors’ Occupations
Tracing your ancestors’ occupations can be one of the best ways to learn more about their everyday lives, skills, financial status and even their social status. Follow these tips and record types into the working lives of your relatives to enrich your family history.
One of my favorite things to learn about my ancestors is the kind of work they did. Whether they were laborers, owned a business, worked on a farm or clerked in a store, there are often records that can tell you more about what their working conditions would have been like; what skills they likely had; and what kind of perks (or lack of) came with the job, like wealth or social status.
Not long ago I heard from Deidre, who was thinking along the same lines. She’s already explored many records that can tell you about an ancestor’s occupation, and now she wants to take things a little further:
“Hi, Lisa! I have listened to most of your podcasts…and have come across something I need some help with. I don’t remember any episodes on business owners and how to research them. I have been recently been researching a new part of the family and they were business owners. One of these family members had a taxi business in Parkersburg, WV then moved to Indianapolis (where I live) to open a restaurant in our downtown, then owned an apartment/business building and leased it out. One of his sons owned drug stores and another was a lawyer.
By using city directories I have found some information about the business, but still wondering if I might be missing more record types. I have used censuses, city directories and local newspapers so far, but are there official legal documents filed for businesses and where would I look? And were there censuses conducted for businesses that would have some detail about the business? The time period I am referring to is 1900 to 1960’s.
It seems this family were entrepreneurial types and tried a lot of business ventures. I had also thought of going down the deed record way for looking at buildings they may have bought, but wondered if these are typically stored in the same place as land deed records at the courthouse. LOTS OF QUESTIONS TO KEEP ME UP AT NIGHT! Any insight is much appreciated! Thank you so much for your show!”
Deidre’s family sounds fascinating—no wonder she wants to learn more about their work! She’s already off to a great start, having learned what kind of work they did. If you need to start from square one, turn to the same kinds of records she already has.
How to research your ancestors’ occupations
1. Identify their line of work
A host of records created about your ancestors may reveal what kind of work they did and who employed them. Census records, obituaries, marriage or death records, city directory entries, draft registration records, pension records, local or county histories: all might mention an occupation.
A photo may reveal an occupation, too. Here’s one that does: see the H.R. Cooke’s Carriage and Motor Works sign in the upper left corner of this photo? It’s from my husband’s Cooke family.
So may a notation on a local map, which might identify an ancestor’s mill, store, school, a factory or hospital that employed him, etc. Remember, our ancestors’ jobs changed over time. A young man may have progressed from a laborer in a mine to the brake man on the coal train to a shift supervisor. Relatives may have changed career paths altogether, too.
When looking through these old records, watch for the name of an employer. The name of a business is just as researchable as an industry or type of work! (More tips on researching the business below.)
2. Learn more about the trade
Depending on the time period and the trade itself, you may be able to learn various details about what the work typically involved (even if you don’t learn specifics about your ancestor’s experience).
Many terms we see in old records today apply to jobs that no longer exist. Googling an obsolete occupation may help you identify it. For example, if you Google the question, “What is a fuller?” you’ll see a definition at the top and, below that, a clickable explanation at Wikipedia. (For the sake of accuracy, you’ll want to verify that in more scholarly sources.)
I saw once on Facebook that someone was trying to figure out what an occupation was that was on a 1910 census. It turned out to be “Topper” at a Stocking Mill. I guess they added the top band to socks or stockings! (Here’s a fun article done by the folks at MyHeritage.com: 10 jobs that no longer exist. And here’s a list of now-obsolete occupations taken from a U.S. census. If your ancestor’s UK census entry is abbreviated, click here to see what that notation might mean.)
These dictionaries of obsolete occupations may help, too:
You can learn more details about historical occupations in history books and documentaries, some of which you can find online. Use smart Google search methodologies to discover what resources are right at your fingertips.
Here’s an example: Let’s say you discover from a census entry that your great-grandmother was running a boarding-house (or perhaps her husband was listed as the proprietor, but you are guessing she probably did a lot of the daily work for it). Googling the phrase running a boarding house gets you top search results about the modern practice of running a boarding house. Instead, add two more words to your search: historical and census (the latter will capture results about this occupation as it appears in the census). As you can see from this revised search, the top results are exactly the kind of thing you want to read.
Note that the second and third search results are from Google Books (the URL in the search result starts with “books.google”). The first appears to be a history book and the second an academic study. Books written by experts in their field and packed with citations are just the kinds of high-quality research sources you want to find. (Click here to learn more about using Google Books.)
Historical documentaries and old film footage can show you an occupation at work, such as mining, working on the railroad, logging, working at a textile mill, sharecrop-farming. Look for these on YouTube. For example, Contributing Editor Sunny Morton was curious after learning from a city directory that her grandmother was a telephone operator in the 1940s. What did that involve?
She went to YouTube and found some fantastic 1940s-era training videos showing operators at work. While some of these may be staged performances, with every operator smiling for the camera and doing her job in tip-top shape, they do show long rows of operators at their stations and give an idea of what their responsibilities were. Sunny could see how they were expected to dress and behave and what their daily tasks looked like. Here’s a quick example of the kinds of short training videos she found:
The idea that telephone operators handled emergency calls surprised Sunny, who grew up in the 9-1-1 era. As a young woman just past high school, Sunny’s grandmother would have been coached to respond to frantic callers and dispatch first responders. Sunny’s grandma would also have received training on how to handle different kinds of calls, such as party lines and long-distance routing through multiple switchboards.
Click here for tips on finding old film footage online. Just for inspiration and proof that this really does work, here’s a video Sunny found after following my tips: it’s her husband’s great-grandfather driving his fire engine in 1937! (Click here to read Sunny’s story about that amazing discovery.)
3: Look for any records created by or about the business itself
If your relative worked at a major factory or mill, such as The Ford Motor Company or Lowell Mill, you may find historical books, documentaries and even museum exhibits specifically about them. But smaller businesses often received a shout-out in local history books, too. So it can pay off to run Google searches with the names of family businesses (or even the type of business, such as tailor, hotel or restaurant) and the name of the town and state. (Add the word history to narrow search results.)
Here’s an example an ecstatic Genealogy Gems listener sent in. He was tipped off by an old map about a place called Todd Pond in his ancestor’s small town. His ancestors were surnamed Todd and lived right there. So he Googled Todds Pond North Attleboro and found a real gem! His family’s business was mentioned in a local history:
“In the days before electric refrigeration, North Attleborough’s homes and stores relied upon ice harvested from either Whiting’s Pond or Todd’s Pond (depicted here). By the time this 1906 photograph was taken, farmers George, Henry, James, and William Todd found selling ice more profitable than farming and founded the Oldham Ice Co.”
(For copyright reasons, we can’t show the picture here. But click here to read more about Thom’s discovery and access the book for yourself.)
Businesses themselves often created records. Stores kept ledgers. Factories and other businesses may have kept personnel records and employee pay cards. They may have published newsletters or histories. Sunny shared the following two fun examples with me:
City directories from the 1950s state that her grandfather worked at the Sinton Dairy (he was the husband of the telephone operator, who by this time was a stay-at-home mom). Among the family papers handed down to one of their children was a company brochure. A picture in the brochure shows him standing next to a vat of ice cream.
The father of the ice cream man, Sunny’s great-grandpa, worked at Colorado Fuel & Iron for most of his life. Her mom Cheryl, a professional genealogy librarian, visited the Steelworks Center of the West, which holds the records of the Colorado Fuel & Iron Company in its archive. Cheryl was able to get a copy of her grandfather’s employment application and work record. Though it’s partly illegible, this work record summarizes his dates of employment and steady progress through the ranks to become a foreman.
It’s possible you’ll find museum or archival collections like the one mentioned above by doing Google searches on the name of the company, place and industry. But you may need to search more specifically in ArchiveGrid, which is an enormous catalog of the original manuscript holdings of thousands of archives, libraries, museums and societies. Click here to learn more about using ArchiveGrid.
Now back to Deidre’s question
Deidre’s email shows she was thinking outside the box already about records that might document her family’s business, such as deeds for business properties. In addition to the above strategies, Deidre may next want to start hunting for the following:
- Local histories that may mention her family’s businesses
- Original archival records pertaining to the businesses
- Maps showing her family’s neighborhood at the time, specifically Sanborn maps, which often identified businesses and included some detailed information about properties.
Deidre specifically asked about legal documents or censuses conducted for businesses for the period 1900-1960s. The special U.S. census schedules relating to specific businesses and industries largely only exist with individual data before this time period. Legal documents would need to be researched on a case-by-case basis: it’s very possible at least one of those businesses faced lawsuits, bankruptcy or other issues that would have taken them into court. Click here to read up on researching on courthouses.
Another possibility is professional directories that could have been published specific to her relatives’ line of work. Here’s a link to an Ancestry.com wiki article on professional directories: the first category mentioned is law directories.
Finally, it might be helpful to contact the local genealogical and historical societies for the areas they lived. Often, a longtime local may know about gems that may only be on library shelves or tucked into a manuscript collection that isn’t listed in ArchiveGrid.
Learn more about ancestors’ occupations
Now that you’ve finished reading, I encourage you to go back and click on links provided to learn MORE about discovering ancestors’ occupations. If you’re ready to learn advanced online research skills (like mastering Google searching and Google Books) please consider becoming a Genealogy Gems Premium member. You’ll have access to full-length video tutorials on these topics and more–for a full year! To give you a taste of Premium, here’s a preview of my Google Books class.
About the Author: Lisa Louise Cooke
Lisa is the Producer and Host of the Genealogy Gems Podcast, an online genealogy audio show and app. She is the author of the books The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, Mobile Genealogy, How to Find Your Family History in Newspapers, and the Google Earth for Genealogy video series, an international keynote speaker, and producer of the Family Tree Magazine Podcast.
New Genealogy Records Include UK Suffragettes and Travelers’ Records
New collections about Great Britain Suffragettes and travelers on the S.S. Great Britain headline this week’s roundup of new genealogy records online. Read here about more new genealogy records for England, Scotland and Ireland: parish records, newspapers and more.
Great Britain Suffragettes Collection free until March 8
In honor of the 100th anniversary of the first phase of women’s suffrage in England, genealogy giant Findmypast.com (together with The National Archives) has launched The Suffragette Collection. This new online collection of government records, digitized from originals at Kew, “reveals the struggles endured by the movement’s most ardent supporters and highlights the State’s response as it attempted to contain them,” says a company press release.
“Researchers can expect to find photographs, cabinet office papers, calendars of prisoners and Home Office papers on suffragette disturbances and prosecutions,” says Findmypast. “The collection also includes an index of women arrested between 1906 and 1914, the official police watch list recording the details of over 1,300 militant suffragettes, reports of prison conditions, force-feeding, police surveillance and much more….The collection brings together the stories of women from all classes who actively supported women’s suffrage, either by attending demonstrations and meetings or opting for militant ‘direct action.’”
Within days of its launch, the collection also added 271 issues of The Suffragette (later The Britannia, 1912-1918). “Edited by Christabel Pankhurst, it was the official organ of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU),” says Findmypast. It reported on “efforts made by the WSPU towards achieving women’s suffrage and detailing their support for the Allies during the Great War.”
S.S. Great Britain travelers and crew
You can now explore a free website with a searchable database of everyone who ever traveled on the S.S. Great Britain, both passengers and crew. Virtual exhibits on the Global Stories website also allow visitors to explore everyday life aboard the ship; what happened when people died, took ill, were hurt, or gave birth; what kinds of entertainment or discipline passengers could expect and more. You can even search departures and arrivals as the ship circumnavigated the globe 32 times and stopped at five continents between 1845 and 1970.
The Newark Advertiser Photo Archive
Thousands of images from The Newark Advertiser (UK) are now searchable online, thanks to volunteers who have been steadily digitizing and uploading images to the free Images from the Past gallery. According to a recent article in The Newark Advertiser, helpers “are working their way through thousands of old photographic negatives, some dating back to the 1940s. Because of their age, some of the negatives are becoming damaged or corroded so it is vital that they are digitized. They are also in a variety of formats, with the earliest on glass. The volunteers have worked through from the 1940s and are now nearing the 1970s.”
The British Newspaper Archive has recently added hundreds of thousands of digitized newspaper pages to current and newly-published titles. Here are some highlights:
- North Star and Farmer’s Chronicle, 1895-1903 and 1905-1911 (NEW title)
- Clifton Society, 1891-1892, 1894-1897, 1899-1916 (nearly 20,000 pages added) (NEW title)
- Ally Sloper’s Half Holiday, 1885-1896 (NEW title)
- Pearson’s Weekly, 1891-1911 (over 25,000 pages added) (NEW title)
- Birmingham Daily Post, 1973, 1979 (nearly 15,000 pages added)
- Neots Chronicle and Advertiser, 1855-1873, 1875-1886
- Shipping and Mercantile Gazette, 1880-1881
- Birmingham Daily Gazette, 1926, 1931
- Lloyd’s List, 1889, 1894, 1896-1897, 1904, 1906-1909 (nearly 40,000 pages added!)
- Northampton Chronicle and Echo, 1880-1882, 1884-1885, 1891, 1893-1894, 1896, 1899-1908, 1910, 1913-1915, 1918 (nearly 25,000 pages added)
- Bristol Daily Post, 1860-1864, 1867-1873, 1875 (nearly 14,000 pages added) (NEW title)
- Clifton and Redland Free Press, 1890-1895, 1898-1910, 1913-1931 (NEW title)
- West Middlesex Herald, 1855-1858, 1860-1861, 1863-1870, 1890-1895 (NEW title)
- Reading Observer, 1897-1898, 1900-1909, 1911-1914, 1921-1924 (over 12,000 pages added)
- Kinross-shire Advertiser, 1850-1852, 1879-1884, 1890, 1892, 1900-1918
- Leicester Herald, 1827-1842 (NEW title)
- The Suffragette, 1912-1918 (NEW title)
- Coventry Evening Telegraph, 1972-1979 (over 140,000 pages added!)
- West Sussex County Times, 1874, 1877-1889, 1891-1892
- Bristol Magpie, 1891, 1903, 1906-1907, 1911
- Horfield and Bishopston Record and Montepelier & District Free Press, 1899-1911, 1913-1931
- Middlesex & Surrey Express, 1887-1888, 1890-1895, 1899-1909 (over 11,000 pages added)
- Croydon Chronicle and East Surrey Advertiser, 1870, 1875-1888, 1890-1892, 1894-1896, 1898-1908, 1911 (more than 14,000 pages added)
- The Clifton & Redland Free Press, 1891-1931
England parish and probate records
The free genealogy giant, FamilySearch.org, has recently added significantly to its collections of England parish records:
- England, Derbyshire, Church of England Parish Registers, 1537-1918: Well over half a million indexed names have been added
- England, Warwickshire, Parish Registers, 1535-1984: More than 1.1 million indexed names have been added
- England, Rutland Parish Registers, 1538-1991: A new collection with over 325,000 indexed names
The subscription-access genealogy giant Ancestry.com recently published the following collections:
- Buckinghamshire, England, Extracted Church of England Parish Records, 1535-1812, a new collection with about 65,000 records.
- Wiltshire, England, Wills and Probate, 1530-1858, a new collection of over 100,000 records.
Findmypast.com has updated its collection of Devon parish records, with over 30,000 new records in Baptisms, nearly 40,000 new records in Banns and nearly 80,000 new records in Marriages, about 31,000 new records in Burials, and all of these records (and more) browsable in its image collection of Devon, Plymouth & West Devon Parish Registers.
More new genealogy records from the British Isles
Ireland. Ancestry.com has published a new collection, Clare, Ireland, Church of Ireland Baptisms, Marriages and Burials, 1744-1991, with nearly 14,000 indexed records. According to the collection description, “This collection includes baptism, marriage, and burial records from parishes in the County of Clare in Ireland, with dates ranging from 1744 to 1991.”
Scotland. Ancestry.com has published three new collections for Scotland. They are small, but if they mention your ancestors, they’re important!
Start tracing your British Isles genealogy
The British Empire once spanned the globe and had a presence on every continent. Chances are that at some point you will need to extend your research back to the British Isles. Genealogical research in the British Isles has some unique characteristics. Guest blogger Kate Eakman, a Senior Researcher for Legacy Tree Genealogists, clarifies confusing terms and helps you get your research started on solid footing. Click here to read her tips.
About the Author: Sunny Morton
Sunny is a Contributing Editor at Lisa Louise Cooke’s Genealogy Gems; her voice is often heard on the Genealogy Gems Podcast and Premium Podcasts. She’s known for her expertise on the world’s biggest family history websites (she’s the author of Genealogy Giants: Comparing the 4 Major Websites); writing personal and family histories (she also wrote Story of My Life: A Workbook for Preserving Your Legacy); and sharing her favorite reads for the Genealogy Gems Book Club.
Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links and Genealogy Gems will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on these links (at no additional cost to you). Thank you for supporting Genealogy Gems!