Federal court records are wonderful because they are so packed with genealogical information. But knowing which records are available and where to find them can sound daunting, and that stops many genealogists from ever tapping into them. In this episode our aim is to fix all that. Professional forensic genealogist Michael Strauss is here to pull back the curtain and introduce you to these valuable records.
You know Michael from our Military Minutes segments here on Genealogy Gems. He also recently introduced us to descendancy research on Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast episode 174. The response to that episode was terrific. Many of you wrote in to say that it opened up a new avenue of research for you. This episode promises to do the same.
Podcast host: Lisa Louise Cooke
Download the episode mp3
GEM: Federal Court Records with Michael Strauss
Where are Federal Records Found?
Federal Court Records are initially held in the custody of the national federal courthouses where the events occurred.
The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) was founded in 1934.
Regional Archives – about a dozen across the country – hold record geographically by area. View the locations here at the National Archives website.
Are all the records catalogued on the National Archives website?
- Master federal indexes are not yet online. Indexes are found at the location/level where these record files were created.
- Each of the federal courts are found in record groups (RG).
- Get the finding aid for the record group online at the National Archives website. That will point in the right direction as to where to get the indices.
- Resource: Finding Aids at the National Archives
Types of Federal Courts:
The Federal Court System of the United States was established under the Judiciary Act of 1789 (1 Stat. 76) on September 24, 1789. Click here to read more about the role and structure of the federal courts at the United States Courts website.
Trial Courts of the United States. Their jurisdiction include:
- and Naturalization
These courts began at different times dependent on the geographic area and when the states were created.
Originally established in 1789 as three courts and later expanded to nine courts by 1866. Circuit Courts have jurisdiction over all matters (especially criminal) covered by Federal Law. Abolished in 1911 and taken over by District Courts.
Circuit Courts of Appeals:
Established under the Federal Court System by an Act of Congress on March 3, 1891 (26 Stat. 826), by acquiring the appellate jurisdiction of the U.S. Circuit Courts and later the U.S. District Courts. They have different geographic jurisdictions than the regular federal courts.
It is recognized as the highest court in the United States operating as an appeals court. Although a criminal case may have first been heard at the local level, it may have escalated to a federal court. Therefore, there could be federal records on that case.
Application for the Genealogist:
Michael has found that some of the richest records in the federal court system have come from the criminal court records. Our ancestors did get into trouble upon occasion. Michael’s grandfather was arrested in the 1940s and he was able to obtain those records.
Searching for Federal Records
Is it worthwhile to head to the National Archives and generally search to see if an ancestor has records? Or is it best to identify a case first, perhaps through a newspaper article, and then go to the National Archives location that would have the records for those identified cases?
No one is wasting their time going and searching the records. It’s a great way to get familiar with them. However, identifying a case through other records first can lead you quickly to the federal records. (Michael first found his grandfather’s case in a newspaper article.)
Types of Federal Court Records:
Dockets: Lists of cases heard by the court. Sometime referred to as court calendars.
Brief daily accounts of all actions taken by the court.
The specific judgments or orders of the court. An example would be an order granting citizenship.
Legal document arguing why one Party should prevail on a case.
When a Defendant obligates themselves to engage in activities in exchange for suspension of sentence. Frequently seen in Criminal Court.
All the loose documents relating to the case bundled together.
How to Find Records at the Archives:
- Review the finding aid
- Request the Index and find the name and corresponding file information
- Request the record
An appointment is not required. They will pull the records as you request them. Record groups are pulled at different times. For the most part you will have the opportunity to view the original documents.
The National Archives is set up by record groups, such as:
Records of the U.S. District Court – RG 21
Records of the U.S. Supreme Court – RG 267
Records of the U.S. Court of Appeals – RG 276
Records of the U.S. Court of Claims – RG 123 (Claims against the US. Individual citizens could actually file claims against the US)
Request the individual record groups separately.
Bankruptcy Acts were passed by Congress usually after business disturbances or financial recessions.
Bankruptcy Act of 1800
This act followed the business disturbances of 1797.
The first national bankruptcy act was approved on April 4, 1800 (2 Stat, 19.) It provided for an effective period beginning June 2, 1800 and continuing for 5 years.
It applied only to merchants or other related parties. The act provided for compulsory or involuntary bankruptcy, but not for voluntary bankruptcy. Because of its limited applicability the act was repealed on December 19, 1803, just months before its expiration date.
Bankruptcy Act of 1841
This act followed the business panic of 1837.
The second national bankruptcy act was passed on August 19, 1841 and was to take effect on February 1, 1842.
The law allowed voluntary bankruptcy to all debtors, but limited involuntary bankruptcy to merchants, bankers, factors (an agent or commissioned merchant), brokers, and traders.
It eliminated the requirement of the consent of the creditor for a discharge. The bankrupt filer, however, could obtain his discharge through a jury trial if the jury found that he had surrendered all his property and had fully complied with the orders of the court.
Bankruptcy Act of 1867
This act followed the post-Civil War recession of 1866-1867.
On March 2, 1867, Congress approved the Nation’s third bankruptcy act to assist the judges in the administration of the law, the act provided for the appointment by the court of registers in bankruptcy.
The registers were authorized to make adjudications of bankruptcy, to hold and preside at meetings of creditors, to take proofs of debts, to make computations of dividends, and otherwise to dispatch the administrative business of the court in bankruptcy matters when there was no opposing interest.
In cases where opposition to an adjudication or a discharge arose, the controversy was to be submitted to the court.
Bankruptcy Act of 1898
This act followed the business panic of 1893 and the depression that followed. We are currently under the umbrella of this fourth act.
In 1889 The National Convention of Representatives of Commercial Bodies was formed to lobby for bankruptcy legislation. The president of the Convention, Jay L. Torrey, drafted a new Bankruptcy Bill otherwise known as the “Torrey Bill.”
In 1898 Congress passed a bankruptcy bill based on the previous Torrey bill. This Act also called the “Nelson Act” was passed July 1, 1898, (Ch. 541, 30 Stat. 544.) It was the first United States Act of Congress involving Bankruptcy that gave companies an option of being protected from creditors. Previous attempts at bankruptcy law had lasted at most a few years. Its popular name is a homage to the role of Senator Knute Nelson of Minnesota.
Bankruptcy files are in the custody of the National Archives and now stored offsite at the National Archives branch in Kansas City, MO. Researchers should contact the Archives directly to conduct searches. Some indexes are still maintained at the regional archives.
Bankruptcy Records Examples
1) Two pages from the Bankruptcy File of Percival L. Strauss of Bethel Twp. Berks Co. PA. 1 Page is the petition and the second page is a page from “Schedule A” which lists the debt owed by the bankrupt.
2) Tintype of Percival L. Strauss-circa 1872 within a few years of filing Bankruptcy.
Percival Long Strauss (Son of Benjamin Strauss & Rebecca Long)
Born: December 16, 1830-Upper Bern Township, Berks Co. PA
Died: Mohnton, Berks Co. PA
Married: April 9, 1855-Bethel Township, Berks Co. PA to Malinda Smith (12 Children)
May 18, 1867 (Page 3, Column 6), in the Berks & Schuylkill Journal newspaper the entry reads: “P.L. Strauss of Bethel Twp. Berks County, PA Class #13 License paid $10.00 to conduct store (merchant).”
This is the business he had at the time of his bankruptcy filing on May 27, 1867 in Philadelphia, PA in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.
Types of Information Found in Bankruptcy Records:
- Lists of creditors (name, address)
- Amount of money owed (the debt)
- Specific information about the items for which the debt was incurred
- Total dollar amounts
Follow the Federal Record Trail:
Information found could lead you to additional records. For example, if your ancestor filed for bankruptcy due to debts associated with his business, you could go back to the local level to look for records such as a business license, newspaper articles, etc.
Lisa suggests searching Google Books for digitized items such as county histories, almanacs, catalogs, merchant association books, etc. Here’s an example of a bankruptcy notice found in Google Books (which is free) for Michael’s ancestor Percival L. Strauss
The National Archives has been consolidating all of the bankruptcy records. It is going to be the Kansas City, MO branch of the National Archives, which currently has the Patent files.
Examples of bankruptcy cases:
- Bankruptcy Act of 1841 – Edgar Allen Poe filed bankruptcy in 1841.
- Bankruptcy Act of 1898 Act – Dean Martin in New York
Amendments to the most recent bankruptcy act include:
1933: The “1898 Bankruptcy Act”
Amended to include railroad reorganization, corporate reorganization, and individual debtor arrangements.
1938: The “Chandler Act”
Amended the earlier 1898 Bankruptcy Act, creating a menu of options for both business and non-business debtors. Named for Walter Chandler.
1978: The 1898 Bankruptcy Act
Replaced by The Bankruptcy Reform Act. This Act is still used today.
Writs of Habeas Corpus:
Habeas corpus is a court order from a judge instructing a person who is detaining another to bring the detainee before the court for a specific purpose.
It was often used during the Civil War for soldiers under the age of 18 years and in reference to runaway slaves.
Writs can be found in most case files. They usually involves a petition, transcript, order, and the writ when ordered by the Judge. Contact the National Archives regarding RG19 for records pertaining to this set of documents and indexes.
Fugitive Slave Act:
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was passed by the United States Congress on September 18, 1850 as part of the Compromise of 1850. It was one of the controversial acts passed down by law. Runaway slaves could be returned with the help of the Federal Government.
Records can include:
- Documentation of ownership
Records are typically found in the court of original petition and the court with jurisdiction over the area where the slave escaped. Search under the slave holder’s name.
The Confiscation Act of 1862:
Passed by an act of Congress on July 17, 1862, the full title is “An Act to Suppress Insurrection, to Punish Treason and Rebellion, to Seize and Confiscate the Property of Rebels, and for Other Purposes.”
This Act gave the power to take the land and businesses of persons who served the Confederacy. Records include case files include; petitions, orders of the court, proofs of public notice, and notices of seizure
Example: General Robert E. Lee. The act covered land under Union Control. Lee lived in Northern Virginia, and his home was confiscated. The file has a complete inventory of his house. The location is now the Arlington National Cemetery.
Federal Criminal Records
Criminal records could include cases covering:
- Assault and Battery on the high seas
- Conspiracy to over through our government
- Carrying on a business without a license
- Not paying taxes
Records were created:
- at the federal level
- at the local level – local court at the county level
1790: The first national act created a two-step process:
- Declare your intention to become a citizen
- File your petition for citizenship
Your ancestors may not have finished the process, and they may have filed both at local and federal levels.
Resource: The Family History: Genealogy Made Easy Podcast
Episodes focusing on the Naturalization process include:
This episode begins a 3-part series on U.S. immigration and naturalization records. Learn about passenger arrival lists in the U.S., little-known certificates of arrival and naturalization records: how to find them and what’s in them.
In this episode we focus on passenger departure records created in European ports. He also talks more in-depth about U.S. naturalization records.
In-depth discussion of passenger list annotations and the immigrant’s experience at Ellis Island. Unlock the meaning of those mysterious scribbles on 20th-century passenger manifests!
Learn More with Michael Strauss:
Visit Michael’s Website: Genealogy Research Network
Register for Michael Strauss’ week-long Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy (SLIG) 2020 course called Court #2 A Guide to Treasures Found in Federal Records.
Hear More from Michael Strauss: Genealogy Gems Premium Membership
Gain access to the complete Premium podcast archive of over 150 episodes and more than 50 video webinars, including Lisa Louise Cooke’s newest video The Big Picture in Little Details.
Black, Henry Campbell. Black’s Law Dictionary. Sixth Edition. St. Paul: West Publishing, 1990.
Burton, William C. Burton’s Legal Thesaurus. New York: Macmillan Library Reference, 1998.
Chapin, Bradley. Criminal Justice in Colonial America, 1606–1660. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1983
Eichholz, Alice ed., Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources, 3rd Ed Provo: Ancestry, 2004.
Evans, Barbara Jean. The New A to Zax: A Comprehensive Genealogical Dictionary for Genealogists and Historians. Second Edition. Champaign: B.J. Evans, 1990
Neagles, James C. and Lila Lee Neagles. Locating Your Immigrant Ancestor: A Guide to Naturalization Records. Logan: Everton Publishers, 1986.
Rapaport, Diane. New England Court Records: A Research Guide for Genealogists and Historians. Burlington: Quill Pen Press, 2006
Rose, Christine. Courthouse Research for Family Historians. San Jose: CR Publications, 2004.
Schaefer, Christina. Guide to Naturalization Records of the United States. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1997.
Szucs, Loretto Dennis, and Sandra Luebking. The Archives: A Guide to the National Archives Field Branches. Salt Lake City: Ancestry Publishing, 1988.
Thank you to Michael Strauss for contributing to these notes and sharing his expertise!
This free podcast is sponsored by:
MyHeritage.com is the place to make connections with relatives overseas, particularly with those who may still live in your ancestral homeland. Visit www.MyHeritage.com
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Episode 146 – Maureen Taylor’s New Film Project, Genealogy News, and A Fabulous Use for Google Alerts[iframe src=”http://html5-player.libsyn.com/embed/episode/id/2151213/height/100/width/480/thumbnail/yes” height=”100″ width=”480″ scrolling=”no”]
In this episode we discuss the latest genealogy news, one listener’s fabulous use of Google Alerts, and Maureen Taylor’s new history film project.
Google Earth 7
Google as just released Google Earth version 7. Google Earth is an amazing tool for genealogy so new enhancements are always welcome! This new version enables you to explore a number of cities around the world in 3D, from Long Beach, California, to Rome, Italy. The 3D imagery uses the enhanced modeling capabilities, previously found on only mobile devices.
In my video CD Google Earth for Genealogy Volume II I go into detail about 3D models and even give you resources for how you can get your own 3D models of everything from your house, to your ancestor’s home.
Download the new Google Earth 7 and get even more 3D imagery. You’ll find comprehensive and accurate tours of more than 11,000 popular sites around the world, including our growing list of cities where new 3D imagery is available.
A big change with this new version is the tour guide feature which serves as sort of a virtual local expert that suggests places nearby that you might want to explore and providing you with background information on the location. You’ll find the tour guide along the bottom of the screen, and it looks like sort of a film strip of thumbnail images representing various tours that are available. These change based on where you are on the Google Earth globe.
What’s new in RootsMagic 6 Video
And there a favorite genealogy program that just got a new fresh update. RootsMagic 6 is now available, and you can see what’s new in the newest version of the genealogy database program in a brand new video they’ve published on their website at http://www.rootsmagic.com/webinars/
In the video you will see new features in action such as:
- Online Publishing
- Find Everywhere feature
- Live Timeline View
- CountyCheck Explorer
If you are a current paid user of RootsMagic, you can upgrade for just $19.95. New users may purchase RootsMagic 6 for only $29.95. Order online at http://rootsmagic.com/RootsMagic/
Special Holiday Offer Now through Dec. 20, 2012
Order gift copies of RootsMagic 6 for just $19.95 (plus shipping). You can also order other RootsMagic products at that same $19.95 price. Order the special holiday at http://www.rootsmagic.com/holidayoffer or order by phone at 1-800-ROOTSMAGIC (1-800-766-8762).
The next item here is that the Family Tree Service coming soon to FamilySearch.org
According to a FamilySearch press release, “Within the next few months, FamilySearch will make Family Tree available to everyone on its website. The first of many updates planned for FamilySearch.org, Family Tree will provide a free and engaging way to discover, preserve, and share your family history. Family Tree will also offer specialized tools to make temple work for your ancestors even easier and more convenient.
Watch an Introduction to Family Tree that shows 7 reasons to be excited about Family Tree.
Family Tree will enable you to:
- Save family information into a genealogy tree
- Edit and delete incorrect data, including relationships
- Connect and collaborate with others on shared family lines
- Show where information came from
- Link to online photos and documents
If you have questions about what Family Tree will be like or how it will work, you can log in to a special training website that offers online courses, how-to videos, informational handouts, and step-by-step training.
RootsTech conference in Salt Lake City
The Early Bird price for the full 3-Day Pass which gives you everything RootsTech has to offer is $149, discounted from the regular full price of $219
Students: One-day only pass for $89 and students can get a 3 day pass with their student ID for just $39
Getting Started 3 Day Pass for beginners: gives you access to over 30 classes in the Beginner track is just $39 for the early bird price, and the regular price will be $49
Getting Started one-day pass giving you access to a selection of fundamental classes for just $19
I will be at RootsTech 2013 teaching a variety of classes in addition to my booth in the exhibit hall, and some free demo classes I’ll be doing in the Demonstration Area of the Expo hall. So I hope you get RootsTech 2013 on your calendar because I look forward to seeing you there.
Ireland – National Archives launches new website
The National Archives of Ireland has launched a new genealogy website at http://www.genealogy.nationalarchives.ie/ which will initially host the 1901 and 1911 Censuses, Tithe Apportionment records from 1823-37, and Soldiers’ Wills from 1914-17.
New at ScotlandsPeople
Scottish wills and testaments from 1902-25 now online at the ScotlandsPeople at http://www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk/
Millions of Old Newspaper pages added to FindMyPast
findmypast.com has just published millions of pages of historical newspapers from not only England, but also across Wales and Scotland as well. This collection contains local newspapers for the period 1710-1950. More than 200 titles are included. Go to http://www.findmypast.co.uk/search/newspapers
Ancestry.com launches newspapers.com
On November 29, 2012 Ancestry.com Inc., announced the launch of Newspapers.com, a web site designed to offer a collection of more than 800 U.S. newspapers dating from the late 1700s into the early 2000s.
Comprising more than 25 million pages, Newspapers.com offers a historical and present-day newspapers ranging from the New York Times to small town and local newspapers throughout the United States.
According to Ancestry’s press release “The search capabilities on Newspapers.com are specifically designed for newspapers enabling users to easily search by keywords, location, time period and newspaper name.”
The yearly subscription rate is $79.95 for subscribers and $39.95 for Ancestry.com or Fold3.com members. Newspapers.com also offers a 7-day free trial that can be activated at www.newspapers.com.
Ancestry has launched a new Community Support site at Ancestry.com
You can access Community Support by clicking on “Get Help” at the top of the Ancestry.com homepage. Once on Online Help, you will see a button for “Ask the Community” on the right hand side. That link will take you directly to Ancestry’s new Support Communities.
MyHeritage Buys Geni.com
MyHeritage have just bought our long-term rival Geni.com – and also raised $25million in new funds. As a larger community, the users of MyHeritage and Geni.com will now receive matches with the other website family trees, and MyHeritage’s Record Matching, will benefit Geni’s users, who will get access to historical records never available before on Geni.com.
Jessica has a new blog and a question about photo storage: “…after about the 10th podcast in a row where you encouraged us to start our own blog, I finally got the message. I started my very own “geneablog” a couple of weeks ago. I only have three posts so far, but I’m pretty proud of it. Please check it out and let me know what you think. I’d love you to let your listeners know too, because that would be even more feedback! I am writing my blog from the perspective of my relentless quest to better understand the life of one particular ancestor of mine, William Park. I call it “Knowing William” and it writing it really makes me happy.” Visit her blog at http://williamparkfamilyhistory.blogspot.com/
“I recently listened to episode 119 where you talked to Michael Katchen from 1000memories. I went to the site, signed up, and uploaded pics to my first shoe box. In the interview I remember words like “social networking”, “memorials”, and “genealogy”. I am confused. All I saw on the site was my shoe boxes and some not-very-informative FAQs. I know it has been a while, but have they changed the whole premise of the website in less than a year?”
Lisa’s Answer: Congrats on your new blog! Remember posts can be short and sweet, and pack them with searchable keywords so other researchers can find you in Google Search.
RE: 1000Memories. They have indeed changed up the website since the interview. I agree with you, it seems watered down now, and not as obvious as to how to make the most of it. They seem to be focused on “simplicity.”
Barbara Shares A New Use for Google Alerts
“My Great Grandfather, Edmund Charles Clark, was a builder in Bendigo, and many of his houses still stand in Wattle Street Bendigo today. I spent a lovely day photographing them, but I cannot go up and knock on all the doors however! So I have a cute way of finding out just what those houses look like today especially on the inside. I have an alert in Google for “Wattle Street, Bendigo” and it works a treat. Every so often one of the homes goes up for sale or rent, and one of the real estate websites has pictures of both inside and outside. These come up on my search and I get to see inside the homes that are still standing. One is up for rent at present and here are the pictures from Realestate.com.au of 172 Wattle Street. Isn’t it lovely? It is still much in original condition.
The Google alert function is really useful for genealogy, and I first found out about it from Genealogy Gems – so thank you very much for the gem.”
GEM: Maureen Taylor’s new gig – bringing revolutionary war history to film
Pamela Pacelli Cooper, President, Verissima Productions at www.verissima.com
Maureen Taylor, Author of The Last Muster
Revolutionary Voices: A Last Muster Film, Directed by Maureen Taylor with Verissima Productions
Visit Film Site: lastmusterfilm.com
New Gem for Premium Members!
Sign in to your Membership and go to Premium Videos to view the brand new video Genealogy on the Go with the iPad (and tablets too!)
The iPad is built for hitting the road and is ideally suited for family history due to its’ sleek lightweight size, gorgeous graphics and myriad of apps and tools. In this class I will teach you “the tablet mindset”, the best apps for the tasks that genealogists want to accomplish, and my Top 10 list of iPad Tips and Tricks. By the end of class you will be able to turn your iPad into a family history powerhouse!