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.

Discover the FamilySearch Wiki WOW Factor! (Beginner Tutorial)

Show Notes: The FamilySearch Wiki is like a free encyclopedia of genealogy! In this FamilySearch Wiki tutorial, discover the wealth of information the Wiki has to offer, and learn the secrets to navigating it with ease. We’ll also cover the number #1 reason people get frustrated when searching the Wiki and how to overcome it.

Watch the Video

RootsTech has set the class video to “private”. You can watch it on their website by going to the video page in their on-demand library. You may need to sign in to your free FamilySearch account in order to watch it. 

Enjoy this special free tutorial video which was originally presented at the RootsTech conference. Download the ad-free Show Notes cheat sheet for this video class. (Premium Membership required.)

What is a Wiki?

A wiki is a website that

  • Allows collaborative editing platform for users
  • doesn’t require HTML editing
  • has links to both internal and external resource pages
  • The FamilySearch Wiki is a lot like Wikipedia. It’s basically an encyclopedia of information. But the exciting part is that it’s specific to genealogy. This means you don’t usually have to worry about including the word genealogy in your searches.

What Does the FamilySearch Wiki Do?

The FamilySearch Wiki is focused on providing information for genealogy research such as:

  • how to find data
  • where to find data
  • how to analyze and use the data

What are the sources of Wiki content?

  • Original material was added from the old Family History Library research outlines.
  • User added material in their areas of genealogical expertise. The Wiki is constantly being updated by LDS missionaries and other volunteers as new material is discovered or released.

Don’t worry about Contributor info.

You’re going to see many things about wiki creation and management. Not everything is relevant to you when just wanting to find information. In fact, the majority of the Help section is geared to people creating, editing and maintaining pages. Don’t worry about being a contributor. Enjoy being a user.

2 Ways to Access the FamilySearch Wiki

  • Going directly to https://www.familysearch.org/wiki. Although you can sign into your free FamilySearch account on this page (in the upper right corner) it isn’t necessary in order to use it.
  • Logging in at the FamilySearch website. In the menu under Search click Research Wiki. By logging in and you’ll have access to additional features like participating in discussions, posting and creating watchlists.

The FamilySearch Wiki focuses on records, not ancestors.

Keep in mind that the purpose of the Wiki is to explain where genealogical materials are located and how to get access to them. The Wiki does not have individual ancestor information. If you want to find records, start by deciding specifically what kind of records you want.  Identify when and where the ancestor lived at the time the record was created. Then head to the Wiki to figure out what records are available and where they can be found. 

The Wiki links to:

  • Materials that available at FamilySearch.org or any other online genealogy website.
  • Materials that are not available at FamilySearch.org or any other online genealogy site.
  • Materials that were previously unknown or newly made available online.
  • Strategies and techniques for finding and researching genealogical records.

Types of Searches

Topic Search: When searching for information on a specific topic such as probate records, type the topic into the Search box. As you type, a list of pages with the topic word or words in the title appears below the Search box. If one of the listed pages is the desired topic, highlight and press enter. If you don’t pick from the drop-down list you will get a results list of every page that includes the topic.

Vital records Search: FamilySearch recommends using the Guided Search for info on vital records.

Location Search in the search box: When only the name of any country, state in the U.S., province in Canada, or county in England is typed in the Search box you will be taken directly to that Wiki page. For example: If Texas is searched the result is the Texas, United States Genealogy page.

Page Title: If you happen to know the exact title of the Wiki article you want, type it in the Search Box.

How to Overcome the #1 Search Problem

Many people will search for something like marriage records, Randolph, County, Indiana, and they will get a list of results. The results don’t look as clear-cut as Google results, and they may not all be on topic. This is where we can get lost. I think probably the number one reason why people give up on the wiki is they get these kinds of search results. They realize, wait a second, this isn’t even Indiana, it’s talking about Kentucky! Why am I getting all these? It can be frustrating.

This happens because we tried to do it ourselves, with our own keywords. Remember, like most search engines, they’ve indexed their content to make it searchable, so that means they’ve already decided how they want to talk about a particular topic. Rather than just addressing marriage record first, the wiki focuses on the location. Where is this marriage record? So, focus first on the place unless you are just looking for general information on a general genealogy topic such as genealogy software. 

Pre-filled suggestions will appear as you type because the wiki is going to suggest what it has in the format it has it. Again, you may want to first go to the country, state or county-level page and then look for the record type.

If you’re looking for marriage records but you don’t see them listed it might be that the word marriage isn’t the keyword the wiki uses. Or it might be that the type of record you’re looking for is a state or federal record.

Don’t be discouraged if you don’t see what you want listed in the table of contents. It may just be a keyword issue. Let the work that they’ve already done in organizing their materials guide you. You’ll be more successful and also avoid frustration. The FamilySearch Wiki is just too good of a resource to miss.

The FamilySearch Wiki Search box

You can run three main types of searches:

  1. Single key words,
  2. phrases,
  3. and search strings. 

Resource: Wiki Search Help Page

Search Operators

  • Quotes: Odd Fellows – 49 results versus “Odd Fellows” – 32 results
  • Minus sign
  • OR
  • Word stemming applies: car will also find cars
  • Intitle:Dunkards
  • subpageof:”Requests for comment”
  • Numrange doesn’t work on the wiki
  • Use Google site search to search using Google’s engine and search operators!

Map Search

Generally speaking, the map is the best way to search for records and information that is rooted in a location. Start by clicking the button for the continent, such as North America. From there, select the county from the menu, such as United States, then drill down by state. This will take you to the Wiki entry for that state.

Location-based FamilySearch Wiki Pages

If you’re really new to research in a particular location, start with the guided research link on the location’s wiki page. You may also see links to research strategies, record finder, and record types.

Getting Started section – links to step-by-step research strategies and the most popular records.

The county pages are where the real magic happens because many records such as birth, marriage, death, and court records are typically available at the county level. There you’ll find out how to contact or visit the current county courthouse. Look for Boundary Changes on the page. Use your computer’s Find on Page feature by pressing Control + F (PC) or Command + F (mac) on your keyboard to more quickly find words like Boundary on the page.

Exploring Record Collection Pages

Many record collections have their own page on the Wiki. As you type, these pages will populate in the drop-down list. Example: German Census Records. Take a moment to read through the page and you’ll discover some important information that will save you time and headaches, such as:

  • When censuses were taken
  • National versus local censuses and their various levels
  • Censuses in areas where boundaries have changed over time
  • Various types of census forms we may encounter
  • The purpose behind the creation of census records in Germany
  • The kind of information we can expect to find in the German census
  • Other types of records containing similar information
  • Resource articles (including a handout from a past RootsTech)
  • Wiki articles describing online collections

There are a couple of actions we may want to take before going on to search for records. Here are a few:

Click on the Category to see what else is attached to this category – in this case we see some example images that are helpful in interpreting German census forms.

Click the Cite this page link in the left column if we plan to reference the page elsewhere.

Click Printable Version in the left column if we want a printable or PDF version of the page.

Explore related pages by clicking the What links here link in the column on the left. Notice it also shows if there are any other users watching the page.

Learn more about using Family Search

Videos at Lisa Louise Cooke’s Genealogy Gems YouTube channel:

Search Hack – Google Site Search

Show Notes: How to use Google site search to search a website that doesn’t have a good search engine, or doesn’t have one at all. Google’s Site Search will help you find exactly what you need! This tip comes from the hour-long Premium Membership “Elevenses with Lisa” video called 5 Genealogy Search Hacks. Premium Members can download the exclusive cheat sheet PDF on the show notes page.

Watch the Video

Show Notes

(Downloadable ad-free Show Notes handout & cheat sheet for Premium Members.)

Use Google’s Site search to dig into websites:

  • that don’t have a search feature,
  • that have a search feature that’s not great,
  • or to double-check that you found everything at that site.

Essentially, you can use Google Site search as a custom search engine for a specific website.

For example, USGenWeb is a free genealogy website that has been around for a long time and has a vast number of pages and content. There isn’t a search box on the home page, but you can click Search & Site Map in the menu. However, you’ll notice that their search engine is powered by a third party called FreeFind which has been around since 1998. Because it’s free and a third party, the search field is definitely not secure. Since that’s the case, you might as well use the largest and most powerful search engine in the world, Google,  to search to run your search instead. Google’s site search is the way to do that.

A note about websites like USGenWeb: Make sure that you are searching the correct website.
Notice the URL for the USGenWeb website: https://usgenweb.org/index.html. Click the desired state on the map on the home page. Now, look at the URL again.

Example: Indiana  http://ingenweb.org/

Notice that it’s actually a different website. Each state has the two-letter state abbreviation at the beginning of the URL. Use the state address when conducting a site search.

Example Search: If I wanted to find all mentions of a surname in the state, my site search would look like this:

Hulse site:http://ingenweb.org/

You can use the Google search operators listed in my book The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox to be even more specific about what you want to find.

The Genealogist's Google Toolbox Third edition Lisa Louise Cooke

Available in the Genealogy Gems Store

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