Celebrating Freedom and Records Access: 50 Years of FOIA and Genealogy

Happy July 4th–and Happy 50th to the Freedom of Information Act! Read more about the FOIA and genealogy records we can access because of it.

Today we in the United States celebrate our Independence Day with grateful hearts and parades. Well, genealogists with U.S. ancestors have an extra reason for fireworks: today marks 50 years since Congresss signed the Freedom of Information Act into law, and the U.S. became one of the first nations to open its records to the public.

The Freedom of Information Act

The FOIA opens certain kinds of information about the federal government and certain information created by the federal government. It doesn’t apply to everything, including documents that relate to national security, privacy and trade secrets. The FOIA also only applies to documents created by the federal government, not state or local governments.

Since it was passed, the FOIA has continued to be expanded and amended. Over the years, the numbers of FOIA document requests has skyrocketed, too. In the first five years after the FOIA passed, it only resulted in about 500 total requests for information–that’s an average of just 100 per year. Last year alone, there were more than 700,000 requests!

The FOIA and Genealogy

So, of course we have to ask the question: how well do FOIA and genealogy go together? As it turns out, quite well. My favorite FOIA request is for an ancestor’s Social Security application (the SS-5 form). This is the form that generated the assignment of a relative’s Social Security number and was the first step to receiving any Social Security benefits. It’s what the very limited information on the Social Security Death Index comes from, as well as the much-richer (but not comprehensively available) Social Security Applications and Claims database at Ancestry.com. That was released last year and caused a LOT of us to do a serious genealogy happy dance.

But if you want to see everything in that SS-5 application, you should order an image copy of the original (you can now also order a computerized abstract of it, which is cheaper but might not get everything right). Here’s what an SS-5 application looks like:

Osby Johnson SS5 FOIA and genealogy

This one confirms the names of an African-American man’s parents–parents who survived slavery and left few other records of their existence. This man was part of the first generation in his family to legally learn to read and write. His signature is on the record.

You can also access other key 20th-century genealogy records that haven’t made it online yet–and in some cases, haven’t even been sent to the National Archives yet.

These include the following (with links to where to learn more):

There is some fine print on some of these records request procedures, so read carefully what records are there, what you’re allowed to order and how to request it. Happy Independence Day–and Happy FOIA anniversary!

More FOIA and Genealogy Gems

Social Security Death Index SSDI Try This Now! U.S. Social Security Applications and Claims Index

Search the SSDI for Your Family History

Genealogy Gems Podcast episode 21 about military record requests through FOIA

Applying to Lineage Societies: Why Hire a Pro to Help You

A professional genealogist can help you apply to lineage societies. Joining is a time-honored way to honor your heritage and document your family history research. But it’s not easy! Here’s why even experienced genealogists may want to hire a professional to help with the process.

Professional genealogist can help you apply to lineage societies

Thanks to Legacy Tree Genealogists for supplying this guest blog post.

Applying to lineage societies

Do you have an ancestor who lived in Colonial America when the Revolutionary War was fought, or perhaps earlier in Jamestown, Virginia? Does your ancestry extend back to New England when the Mayflower arrived? If so, there are various lineage societies you could consider joining:

family history video documents applying to lineage societiesWhile each organization has different requirements for their lineage society application, most have the same principles: prove a connection from yourself to the person of interest by use of vital records (where available). Where not available, other documentation that proves family connections can be used. (DAR now also accepts DNA evidence.)

You may not know that most societies allow you to “piggy-back” on applications they have previously accepted. Let’s say your second cousin Steve already joined a society based on your common patriot (or pioneer) ancestor, Alexander Smith. You would just need to provide documentation proving your connection to your parents, your relevant parent’s connection to his/her parents, and your relevant grandparent’s connection to your common great-grandparents, who were already mentioned in Steve’s application. You may then be able to reference Steve’s application for the remainder of the lineage going back to Alexander Smith.

Overall, this may sound like a simple process. But it often takes quite a bit of work because the records needed to prove each generational link are not always readily available–and sometimes they just don’t exist at all.

Why get help when applying to lineage societies

Below are five ways that a professional genealogist can help you apply to lineage societies:

1. Help you determine how to apply. As we mentioned, each lineage society has different requirements, so you’ll want to be sure you know what they expect in order to be as efficient as possible in gathering documentation. A professional can help you determine exactly what documentation is required and locate contact information for those with whom you need to work to submit your application.

2. Identify where your research should stop and start. There is no need to reinvent the wheel, as the saying goes. If your lineage ties into one that has already been acceptably documented by another member of the society, you should use it! A professional genealogist can help you identify any previous lineage society applications that have already been approved for your lineage. This single step can save you a lot of time and money.

3. Organize your information. A professional genealogist can work with you to determine what documentation you already have and what you will need to order. They can help you order copies of missing vital records or find acceptable substitutes in archives, libraries, and online.

weigh conflicting evidence applying to lineage societies4. Conduct in-depth research as needed. Many times, at least one ‘problem’ generation requires in-depth research, circumstantial evidence, and a proof summary in order to make the connection. A well-written proof summary explains how all the circumstantial evidence fits together to support the generational link, and often aids the applicant in obtaining membership when not enough concrete documentation is available (or when it conflicts). This often involves delving into land records, tax lists, probate records, and other more obscure sources to find any and all clues and pieces of information that can be used to tie two generations together. It can be a time-consuming task. A professional genealogist can do this efficiently and thoroughly.

5. Compile and present all records to the lineage society for admittance. You’ll be the one to present or submit your documentation, but professionals can help you get it all ready so that you’ll be as prepared and organized as possible.

Save time and money when applying to lineage societies

A well-prepared lineage society application often shortens the waiting period to be accepted into a society because it is easier to verify and follows the rules of the society. If an application is poorly prepared, it can take several submissions before acceptance into the society is granted. And of course, the lineage society determines what they will and will not accept as proof, so there’s never a guarantee. They may request additional information, and then you have to go back and keep digging! But since professional genealogists have experience working with the various societies and know what types of documentation are usually accepted, working with a pro can make the application process to a lineage easier, more efficient, and in the end, more rewarding.

If you have an ancestor in your lineage who may qualify you to join a lineage society, experts at Legacy Tree Genealogists can help you gather your documentation and prepare your application. They are the world’s highest client-rated genealogy research firm. Founded in 2004, the company provides full-service genealogical research for clients worldwide, helping them discover their roots and personal history through records, narratives, and DNA. Based near the world’s largest family history library in downtown Salt Lake City, Utah, Legacy Tree has developed a network of professional researchers and archives around the globe.

Contact them today to discuss your options–and your ancestors. EXCLUSIVE OFFER for Genealogy Gems readers! Receive $100 off a 20-hour+ research project from Legacy Tree Genealogists with code GEMS100. Offer good through December 31, 2017.

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