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How to Search the U.S. National Archives Online Catalog for Genealogy

How to Search the U.S. National Archives Online Catalog for Genealogy

Elevenses with Lisa Episode 40 Show Notes

Elevenses with Lisa is our little slice of heaven where friends get together for tea and talk about the thing that never fails to put a smile on our face: Genealogy!

The National Archives is a wonderful resource of unique genealogical records. Though the archives are closed, the website is open, and it’s a great place to search for records and prepare for future genealogy research trips.

The National Archives website and online catalog can be a bit mystifying. If you’ve ever tried to search it and wound up frustrated, you’re not alone. This is often the case because the nature of the archives and the search function of the online Catalog are not genealogically focused. Armed with an understanding of how and why it is set up the way it is, and the know-how to search, refine, and download documents, you’ll be ready to add it to your genealogy toolkit.

In this video episode and article, we’ll be answering important questions such as:

  • What kind of genealogy records can be found at the National Archives website?
  • Which genealogy records are not available at the National Archives?
  • How do I search for records at the National Archives online Catalog?
  • How can I retrieve only digital items from the National Archives Catalog?
  • How can I get better search results in the National Archives Online Catalog?
  • How do I download files from the National Archives Website?
  • What is the Record Group Explorer?

Original Air Date: Jan. 21, 2021

Important Links:
The National Archives Website: https://www.archives.gov
Search the Catalog: https://catalog.archives.gov/

What Kind of Records Can be Found at the National Archives Website?

To understand the types of records we can expect to find we must first understand the role and mission of the National Archives. Their role is preserving and making available only the permanent Federal Government records. Some have genealogical value.

  • These records are arranged as the agencies created them, so there is no master subject or name index.
  • While they have 110 million + digitized pages in the Catalog, this represents just a small fraction of the holdings.
  • The Catalog contains descriptions for their nationwide holdings in the Washington, DC area, regional facilities, and Presidential Libraries.
  • The Catalog currently contains descriptions for 95% of the records, described at the “series” level.
  • You can find basic information about the records, including size and location, from the catalog description.
  • The National Archives is regularly adding more file unit and item descriptions, many of which include digital files.

Some traditional genealogy records can be found at the National Archives such as:

  • Census Records
  • Passenger Arrival Records (Immigration)
  • Land Records
  • Military Personnel Records
  • Court records
  • Fugitive slave cases
  • Naturalization records
  • Federal employees
  • Applications for enrollment in Native American tribes

Most if these records are available in person. However, all National Archives locations have been closed since March 13, 2020 and remain so as of this writing.

Genealogy Records You Will Not Find at the National Archives

Because the following genealogy records are not created at the federal level, they would not be cataloged or found at the National Archives:

  • Birth
  • Marriage
  • Divorce
  • Death records
  • Deeds and wills.

To obtain these records, check with the appropriate state or county.

What to do before you search the National Archives Catalog online

Before you begin your online search:

  • Write down your research question.
  • Decide what topic you want to browse.
  • Think of possible ways your ancestor interacted with the Federal Government.

On the National Archives website they provide a great example of a research question that a genealogist might have and how it can lead to records.

QUESTION: Why did my ancestor have a significant decrease in net worth between the 1860 Census and 1870 Census?|
ASK YOURSELF: How might your ancestor have interacted with the federal government that could help explain this discrepancy?
RECORDS TO SEARCH FOR: The Bankruptcy Act of 1867 allowed many people to file for voluntary bankruptcy. The genealogists could search in the National Archives Catalog for bankruptcy AND [state where you ancestor lived during that timeframe] to see if bankruptcy records are available that could help answer the question.

How to Search the National Archives Catalog Online

There are three key types of searches you can conduct in the catalog:

  • Keyword searches
  • Filtered searches
  • Advanced search

Let’s start with a keyword search:

  1. Go to https://catalog.archives.gov
  2. Enter keywords in the search box in the center of the page.
    (If you are looking for an exact phrase using two or more words, put them in quotation marks example: “bounty land”)
  3. Press the magnifying glass button to run your search.
  4. The results will be returned starting with best results at the top.  
  5. To view a description, click on the blue title.  

You can use the filters on the left side of the results page to narrow down your results.

Refine your search results by type if you know the type of material you want. Example of material type include photos, maps, or textual records.

It’s important to remember that just because the item appears in the result does not mean that it is available online. Many of the descriptions don’t include digital images of the records.

How can I retrieve only digital items from the National Archives Catalog?

You can dramatically narrow down your search results to include only digital items that you can review from home. To do this, on the search results page, click on the filter Archival Descriptions with Digital Objects. This will revise your results list so that you will only see descriptions of items with images attached.

How can I get better search results in the National Archives Online Catalog?

It never hurts to try searching by name, although many record descriptions will not name the people who are named in the records. You can improve these searches by using quotes around the entire name, or just the surname. This will restrict results to only items that exactly matches what appears in the quotes.  

You’ll notice that there isn’t a specific search field for names in the National Archives Catalog.  Here are several additional search strategies you can use when searching for the names of people:

  • Search on the person’s full name in first name-last name order.
  • Search for last name – first name within quotes
  • Search on the surname only. Again you can use quotes.
  • Search on spelling variations using the search operator OR. This works well when searching name variations such as: Burkett OR Burkette.
  • Search on variant spellings of the first name, including “Americanized” versions.

Example: Joseph Maggio OR Guiseppe Maggio.

Again, keep in mind that most descriptions in the National Archives Catalog do not include the names of people mentioned in the record. If you know an individual participated in event, search for related keywords and look within the records. You will need to read them to see if your ancestor is mentioned.  

Another way to improve your search results is to shift your focus from people to topics. This is strongly recommended by the National Archives. You are much more likely to get a greater number of results because people aren’t usually named in descriptions. Be sure to read the description carefully to see if the item will be helpful and worth requesting.

When searching topics, think about and make a list of relevant phrases and keywords. For example, when searching for Land Records, try searching for phrases such as:

  • “Bounty Land”
  • Homestead
  • “Land Entry”

Premium Members Exclusive: Downloadable National Archives Topic Search cheat sheet (PDF)

How to Download Files from the National Archives Website

After clicking the description on the search results page you will be on the record page. If there is a digital image, it can be downloaded. Look below to see if there are additional pages. You can click to select the desired page and then click the download icon just below the image.

If you would like to download all of the images, look below the list of images to see if a compiled PDF is available. This will allow you to download and save all of the images in one convenient file.

The Record Group Explorer at the National Archives Website

The Record Group Explorer offers a unique way of visualizing and finding records at the National Archives website:

  • Allows you to browse NARA’s holdings by Record Group
  • Use it to get a sense of the scale and organization of records
  • Explore what is available online via the Catalog
  • Provides an overview of the digital scans available online within a Record Group: textual records, photographs, maps and charts, electronic records, and more.

Records are grouped by specific government agencies. Each group is represented visually in a section. The section is light blue, signifying the total volume of textual records. If a dark blue bar appears in the section, it is an indicator that some of the records are digitized. The percentage or number (depending on the view you select in the grey Record Group Explorer Tools bar across the top) of digital images will be shown.

If the section is green, that indicates that there are records online but they are not textual records. They may be items like photographs or films.

If the section is grey, there are no records available online at all.

Click a section to learn more about that Record Group and explore the records.

Record Group Highlight: Motion Pictures

The National Archives holds a surprising number of motion pictures. As you browse or search, focusing on topic will likely be more helpful than searching by name. Consider looking for your ancestors’ homes, businesses, military service, events and associated locations.

Check out Motion Picture Library Stock Shots, ca. 1953 – ca. 1959

“A series of films: 306-LSS, a group of more than 400 black and white reels of stock footage that ended up in the hands of the United States Information Agency (USIA).”

Answers to Live Chat Questions

One of the advantages of tuning into the live broadcast of each Elevenses with Lisa show is participating in the Live Chat and asking your questions.

From Sue M.:  Do they hold WPA and CCC records?
From Lisa: Yes to both!

From Steve S.: Can you use the * and ? as search operators in the NARA catalog? Also thanks for de-mystifying this site! you have made it much more understandable.
From Lisa: After the show Steve did some searching and found this handy page providing additional search tips and operators supported by the website. Thanks Steve!    

From Michael R.: Are the Naturalization records in the National Archives different from those in local courthouses?
From Lisa: I haven’t looked lately, but about 15 years ago I filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request and received my great grandfather’s federal naturalization paperwork. It included a photograph that was not included at the county court level.

From Lynnette B.: I had my parent’s old home movies put on DVD’s several years ago. What is the next step in making them more available? Adobe spark video? YouTube? I want to identify each person on them?
From Lisa: An easy way to get started is by making Adobe Spark Videos (see episode 16)  which is free and easy. Use the Titles feature to add text explaining who is who. Uploading them to your free YouTube account channel is a super easy way to share them.

Resources

Genealogy Gems premium elearning

Click to learn more about Genealogy Gems Premium Membership.

10 Questions to Rate Your Readiness for Genealogy Research Success

10 Questions to Rate Your Readiness for Genealogy Research Success

Elevenses with Lisa Episode 39 Show Notes

Elevenses with Lisa is our little slice of heaven where friends get together for tea and talk about the thing that never fails to put a smile on our face: Genealogy!

Are you ready for a year of successful genealogy? Learn how to develop an effective research plan, and preserve and protect your genealogy. Keep reading for the show notes that accompany this video.

10 Questions to Rate Your Readiness for Genealogy Success

1. Have you selected a place to start?

I started learning how to play the guitar in 2020. I began with an online course to learn the basics, and I picked one song that I really wanted to learn how to play. 

For three months I worked my way through the course and played that song over and over every day. This resulted in two things: I learned how to play the song, and my husband took a blow torch to my guitar! (Just kidding.)

At the end of those three months I had several weeks where I just didn’t feel I was making any progress at all. I practiced every day, but I wasn’t getting anywhere.

It turns out that I had reached my initial goals – I knew the most popular chords, had memorized the Pentatonic Scale and could play the song Crazy On You for a captive audience in my home. However, I had not  stopped to identify my next set of goals. Therefore, stagnation set in.

In an effort to restart my learning and success trajectory, I spent an evening looking through my record collection and I made a list of 6 of my favorite songs. Then I put them in the order I wanted to learn to play them. Most importantly, I identified which one was my top priority to learn. Once I did that, I knew exactly how I was going to spend my practice time.

It sounds simple, but finding and deciding on the place to start (or restart) is really easy to miss. When it comes to genealogy there’s always a bright shiny object online ready to gobble up a few precious minutes, or hours, or days! Having a predetermined project goal in mind will help you get down to business faster and keep you from wandering aimlessly.

2. Have you developed a project research question?

Once you know what your project will be, it is time to formulate the general question. In other words, what is the question you are trying to answer?

In this episode I shared the family story that had been handed down the McClelland family about their ancestor Washington McClelland. The story went like this: “He immigrated to the U.S. from England. He was working on the railroad when he met a girl in Idaho. She became pregnant. They married. He converted to the LDS church. They raised a family together.”

The general research question was “is this story true?” That’s a big question, and one that we’ll break down further in question #3. 

Genealogy Gems Premium Members can learn more about formulating research questions by watching the segment How Alice the Genealogist Avoids the Rabbit Hole Part 1 in Elevenses with Lisa Episode 2. It’s available in the Premium Videos area of the Genealogy Gems website. Don’t miss the downloadable handout! You’ll find the link under the video. (Learn more about becoming a Premium Member here.)

3. Do you have a Research Plan for your genealogy project?

The general project question can usually be broken down into several bite-sized actionable questions. In the example of “Is the story about Washington McClelland true?” we can break that question down into several questions:

  • Where exactly was Washington from in England? 
  • When did he come to the United States?
  • Why/how did he end up out West?
  • Did he work on the railroad?
  • When and where did he marry?
  • When was their oldest child born?
  • Did he join the LDS church?

And many of these questions can likely be broken down further. These more focused question help provide the framework for the project’s research plan. They can then be re-sorted so that they follow a logical progression of answers.

The next step will then be to identify and prioritize the sources (records) that are likely to provide the necessary relevant evidence. Then determine the order in which you will locate each identified record. Finally, add where you think you can find the records to the plan.

4. Do you have the research forms you need?

There are many different types of genealogy research forms: research logs, blank record forms, checklists, just to name a few.

Research logs are great for keeping track of your research plan progress. Blank record forms (such a blank 1900 U.S. Federal Census form) are very handy for transcribing the pertinent information for analysis. And checklists (such as a list of all types of death records) help ensure that you don’t miss and records, and you don’t look for the same record twice!

Free Genealogy Forms at Family Tree Magazine
Family Tree Magazine offers a plethora of free genealogy forms. You’ll need to register for a free website account to download the forms.

Free Genealogy Forms at Ancestry
Here you’ll find several common and helpful genealogy forms including:

  • Ancestral Chart
  • Research Calendar
  • Research Extract
  • Correspondence Record
  • Family Group Sheet
  • Source Summary
  • US, UK And Canadian Census Forms

5. Have you established Your Filing System?

Having an organizational system in place takes the guesswork out of where things should be filed, making it much more likely they will actually get filed. It also ensures that you’ll be able to put your hands on your records whenever you need them.

Here’s a secret: There is no one perfect filing system. The most important thing is that it makes sense to you and that you are consistent in how you use it.

In Elevenses with Lisa Episode 6 (available to Premium Members) I cover step-by-step the system I developed and have used for over 15 years. I’m happy to report I’ve never lost an item. (Whew, what a relief!)

As you work on your genealogy research you’ll find there are two important tasks you will be doing often:

  • Storing items that you have not had a chance to work on yet (I refer to these pending items as “to be processed.”)
  • Storing items that need to be filed. (Let’s face it, we rarely want to stop in the middle of an exciting search to file a document.)

Not having a way to store these two types of items leads to clutter and piles on your desk. Here’s my simple solution:

  • Place a “to be filed” basket next to your desk.
  • Create a “Pending” tab in each surname 3-ring notebook (if you use my system.) The beauty of the surname notebook Pending section is you have a place to put documents (out of sight) that are associated with a specific family. When you’re ready to work on that family line, grab the notebook and jump to the Pending section to start processing and analyzing the previously found records.

7. Do you have the supplies you need on hand?

Make sure that you have a small quantity of all of the supplies you need for the filing and organization system you are using.

Here’s what my shopping list looks like:

  • 3” 3-Ring View Binders
    (allow you to customize covers & spines)
  • 1” 3-Ring View Binder
  • 1 box of Acid-Free Sheet Protectors
  • 3-Ring Binder Tab Dividers

8. Have you settled on a file naming scheme?

How to name digital genealogy files is something we all struggle with. Good intentions don’t make the job any easier. Take a few moments to nail down the basic naming scheme you will commit to follow. I say basic, because there will be times when you’ll need to modify it to suit the file. That’s OK. But always start with the basic format.

Here’s what my basic file naming format looks like:

  • Year (will force chronological order)
  • First Name (filed in surname folder)
  • Location

Example: 1920_robert_m_springfield_oh

Notice in my format I don’t usually include the surname. That’s because I file in surname folders. Notice that I said “usually.” That’s because we are always free to add on additional information like a surname if we think it will prove helpful. For example, if I anticipate that I will have a need to share individual files with other researchers or family members (rather than the entire folder) then I will add the surname so that the person receiving the file has the pertinent information.

8. Are you prepared to make copies?

Protecting and preserving our genealogy for generations to come is a top priority for most genealogists. All of us at some time have worried about what would happen if a website that we upload our content to goes out of business or sells out to another company. Now there is a new reason to take a few extra steps to ensure you don’t lose access to your genealogy data. 

Recently, According to Buzz Feed, on Jan. 9 the largest cloud-hosting service notified a large social media network with millions of users that it would be cutting it off  from its cloud hosting service.  According to the Wall Street Journal, “other tech partners also acted, crippling operators.”

Now we must add to the list of concerns the possibility that a genealogy website we use might be cut off from web hosting. How might this type of action impact our personal family history that we share on websites? Many companies that provide access to millions of historical records and likely house a copy of your family tree and your DNA test results use the same cloud hosting service. In fact, it’s hard to find a company out there that isn’t tethered to it in some way.

My research showed that both Ancestry and FamilySearch have been featured on their website in case studies and blog articles:

The bottom line is that our family history is our responsibility to preserve and protect. While we can benefit from sharing copies of it online, putting all our genealogy eggs in only the online basket puts it at risk because we don’t have control.

While I love the idea of going paperless and I’ve been striving to do that in recent years, I’m changing my tune on this. For several years I’ve been strongly recommending that you get your own genealogy software on your own computer and use it as your master database. All online family trees are simply copies. Many people, particularly those who rely solely on FamilySearch often wondered why I was so concerned. The events of this week make my point and put an exclamation point on the end of it.

Making digital and paper copies of your data is a simple strategy you can put in place today. This means regular print outs of your tree, family group sheets, and the most important genealogical documents. I keep mine in a portable fireproof safe.

We can also make digital copies as well. For example, last year I had all my old home movies transferred to digital and they are stored on my computer. I went the extra step to get copies on DVD and I also copied the digital files onto a terabyte hard drive that is in the fireproof safe.

Remember, your computer is connected to the Internet. If you’ve ever woken up to a Windows update, then you know that tech companies can make changes to your computer. Having your own paper and digital copies are just extra insurance that certainly can’t hurt.

Here’s a checklist of things you can put in place today:

  • a good printer
  • extra ink
  • a stock of paper
  • a portable terabyte hard drive

Ideas for saving paper and ink:

  • Print only the most important documents that might be more difficult to replace.
  • Focus your printing on direct ancestors.
  • Print in draft mode (depending on the document) and / or black and white to save ink.
  • Make double-sided copies.
  • When possible, add two documents to each side of the paper so that one piece of paper holds 4 documents.

 

9. Is your computer backed up to the Cloud?

I use and recommend Backblaze for computer cloud backup. They have their own storage facility. Here’s what their storage pods look like:

backblaze server podcast

Image courtesy of Backblaze.

I am also an affiliate of Backblaze so I appreciate when you use my link if you decided to make a purchase. I will be compensated at no additional cost to you, and that supports this free show. https://www.backblaze.com/landing/podcast-lisa.html 

Learn more: Premium Members can watch the Premium video Your Guide to Cloud Backup and download the PDF handout. You’ll get answers to questions like:

  • What is cloud backup?
  • Why should I use cloud backup?
  • How does cloud backup work?
  • Is cloud backup safe?
  • What should I look for when selecting a cloud backup service?
  • My personal cloud backup choice

10. Have you scheduled ongoing education time?

Pick one area you want to improve your genealogy skills and knowledge and make time each week to learn something new about it.

Thank you for making Elevenses with Lisa and Genealogy Gems one of your places for genealogy learning, laughing and getting refilled!

On the Genealogy Gems YouTube channel:

  • Click the Subscribe button
  • Click the bell for notifications.
  • Use a free service like Blogtrottr.com to receive email notification reminders. Simply paste the Genealogy Gems channel URL into the first field,
    https://www.youtube.com/GenealogyGems
    enter your email address and select from the drop-down menu how often you would like to receive notifications. Then click the orange “Feed Me” button. When I post a new video or schedule an Elevenses with Lisa episode you’ll receive an email notification.

Recap: 10 Questions to Rate Your Readiness for Genealogy Success

  1. Have you selected a place to start?
  2. Have you developed a project research question?
  3. Do you have a Research Plan for your genealogy project?
  4. Do you have the research forms you need?
  5. Have you established Your Filing System?
  6. Do you have the supplies you need on hand?
  7. Have you settled on a file naming scheme?
  8. Are you prepared to make copies?
  9. Is your computer backed up to the Cloud?
  10. Have you scheduled ongoing education time?

Elevenses with Lisa Archive

Premium Member have exclusive access to all of the archived episodes and downloadable handouts. Visit the Elevenses with Lisa Archive

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Resources

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Please leave your comment or question below

Let us know if you found this video and article helpful. I’d also like to hear from you about the topics you would like to learn more about in future episodes. Thanks!

 

A Cup of Christmas Tea with Tom Hegg

A Cup of Christmas Tea with Tom Hegg

Elevenses with Lisa Episode 38 Show Notes

Join me for an inspiring conversation with Tom Hegg, author of the New York Times best-selling book “A Cup of Christmas Tea”. Genealogists from around the world gathered together for this special live show to share a cup of tea and hear a story of the importance of touching base with our fellow man. It’s a message we can benefit from any time of year, and especially in a year where we’ve spent more time apart than ever. It’s also a wonderful reminder of the importance of family and how our older family members hold a piece of our own history in them. 

Cup of Christmas Tea with Tom Hegg

Get your copy of A Cup of Christmas Tea here.

You’re in for a special treat: a personal reading of this classic book by the author himself. I promise you, it will lift your heart this Christmas and all year long.

About the book A Cup of Christmas Tea:

A Cup of Christmas Tea, written by Tom Hegg and illustrated by Warren Hanson, is a simple, heart-warming story of how one man’s reluctant visit to an elderly aunt’s house renews his holiday spirit and brings him unexpected joy. The book’s Christmas 1992 debut on the New York Times Bestseller list after 10 years in print, was followed by three more years on the list and is unprecedented in publishing. To date this book has sold more than 1.5 million copies.

Charles Kuralt said, “I have a feeling that (this) little green book will be around for a long time, raising lumps in throats and smiles on faces. To it, I raise A Cup of Christmas Tea.”
Source: Tristan Publishing, Inc.

I wrap up this episode with my personal story as 2020 comes to a close. My daughter was injured in a serious accident. But no matter what 2020 throws at each of us, prayer is our most powerful weapon. Thank you to my many friends who’ve prayed for our family. You encouraged us and I hope you find this story encouraging.

Wishing you all a happy and healthy new year!

Resources

Premium Members: There are no downloadable show notes for this special episode. Please just sit back, relax and enjoy the show. 

Did you enjoy the show? Please leave a comment below.

 

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