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:
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Elevenses with Lisa Episode 43 Show Notes
Do you like finding new stuff about your family history? Well, then you’re in the right place because today that’s exactly what we’re going to do in this episode of Elevenses with Lisa.
If you’re looking for new information about your family history, an important website to add to your research list is the Internet Archive. The Internet Archive is a free website that attempts to archive the web, and that includes online genealogy!
One of the best ways to approach your search at the Internet Archive is by focusing on a particular type of record. Here are 10 genealogy records that every genealogist needs that can be found at this free website.
Watch the Internet Archive episode:
Getting Started with the Internet Archive
You are free to search for and access records without an account, but there’s so much more you can do with a free account. Here are just a few advantages of having an Internet Archive account:
- Borrowing ebooks
- Saving Favorites
- Uploading content
- Recommending websites to be archived.
Getting a free account is easy. Simply click on the Sign Up link in the upper right corner of the home page.
Types of Content at the Internet Archive
There’s a surprisingly wide variety of content available on the website including:
10 Awesome Finds at the Internet Archive
A great way to discover all that the Internet Archive has to offer is to think in terms of categories of records. I’m going to share with you ten genealogy record categories that include several specific types of records.
Start your search for each category using just a few keywords such as:
- a location (town, county, etc.)
- the type of record,
- a family surname, etc.
Next try applying some of the filters found in the column on the left side of the screen. I try several combinations of searches to ensure that I’ve found all that the Internet Archive has to offer. Let’s get started:
Genealogy Records Category #1: Church Records
In Elevenses with Lisa episode 41 we discussed how to find and use church records for your family history. Here are just a few of the specific types of church records you can find at the Internet Archive:
- Meeting Minutes
- Church Histories
- Quaker Records
Genealogy Records Category #2: Family Records
- Compiled Family Histories
- Family History (general)
- Family Bibles
Learn more about finding and using family bibles for genealogy in Elevenses with Lisa episode 29.
Genealogy Records Category #3: Location-Based Records
- Location History (Example: Randolph County Indiana History)
- City and Rural Directories
- Plat Maps
Genealogy Records Category #4: School Records
- Student Newspapers
- High School, College, etc.
Genealogy Records Type #5: Work Records
- Trade journals
- Corporate histories
- Works Progress Administration (WPA)
- Civilian Conversation Corps (CCC)
Genealogy Records Category #6: Military Records
- Military Radio Shows
- Military histories
- Photographic reports
- Veterans Administration Payment Records
- WWI County Honor Books
Elevenses with Lisa episode 31 features the Genealogy Center at the Allen County Public Library which hosts much of their content on the Internet Archive. Tip: If you find a collection difficult to navigate, visit the website of the sponsoring organization (such as the Allen County Public Library) which may have a better user interface for searching the records.
Genealogy Records Category #7: Patent Records
From the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Keep in mind that your ancestor may be mentioned in a patent even though they did not file it.
Genealogy Records Category #8: Probate Records
Although there doesn’t currently appear to be a large number of probate records, the Internet Archive does have some. Try searching by location to see if it includes a probate record for others from the same community. For example, a prominent shopkeeper might list many in the town who owed them money.
Genealogy Records Category #9: Audio and Video Records
Audio records include:
- Oral interviews
- Old radio shows
- Music from days gone by (78s, cylinders, etc.)
Genealogy Gems Premium Members: Listen to episode 176 of the Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast for more on the Great 78 Project at the Internet Archive. (Learn more about joining us as a Premium Member.)
Video records can include:
- Old home movies
- Local shows and news
- Newsreels shown in movie theaters
- History Documentaries
I searched for the small town where my husband’s ancestors lived for several generations and found a great video from 1954. It featured a parade float sponsored by his great grandfather’s business and several faces I recognized! Watch Winthrop Days.
Genealogy Records Category #10: Collections!
A collection is a group of records submitted by a user. Often times these will be organizations, libraries and archives.
Here are just a few examples of collections that may be of interest to you as a genealogist:
- American Libraries
- Allen County Public Library Genealogy Center-microfilm
- Genealogy (a collection of over 160,000 items)
- Canadian Libraries
- British Libraries
- Australian libraries
- Reclaim the Records
Borrowing Books from the Internet Archive
Visit the Books to Borrow collection. You will need to be logged into your free Internet Archive account in order to borrow books. You can borrow the book in 1 hour increments. In some cases, you can choose a 14-day loan. If there is only one copy of the book available, the 1 hour load will be the only option. If there are no copies available you can join a waitlist. No waitlist is necessary for one hour loan ebooks.
Learn more about creating your own collection at the Internet Archive.
Tips for Using the Internet Archive
Tip: Find More at the Internet Archive
Scroll down below the individual item for:
- Download options
- “In Collections” (which can lead you to more content from the same collection)
- Similar items
Also, when you find an Item of interest, click the Contributor link to see all of the items uploaded by the user. It’s very likely they will have additional similar items.
Tip: Use the Internet Archive Advanced Search and Search Help
One advantage to using the Advanced Search is when you are searching for items from a specific timeframe. It’s much more efficient than clicking the box for very year in the range in the filter.
Tip: Downloading from the Internet Archive
Download the full cover version of the PDF when available. Images will likely be clearer and more accurate.
More Interesting Content at the Internet Archive:
- Video Game Oregon Trail
- Old Radio Programs
- bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1865-1872
- Veteran’s Administration Pension Payment Collection
- Oaths of Allegiance and Naturalization Index
- Genealogical publications
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.
Question from Sue: What does metadata mean?
Lisa’s Answer: Metadata is data that describes other data. For example, the date of upload is metadata for a digital file that you find online. Metadata is often added by the person or institution doing the uploading to the Internet Archive. I like to search both “Metadata” and “text contents”.
Question from CA: Date filter really applies to date posted not date of item u r looking for….correct?
Lisa’s Answer: In the case of genealogical documents, the date typically refers to the date of original publication rather than the date posted. You will find dates back into the 19th century in the filters.
Question from Mary: is there a print icon? I don’t see it.
Lisa’s Answer: Instead of printing, look for the download options. Once downloaded to your computer, then you can print.
Question from Susie: Would this site have membership of Rotary clubs and such type groups?
Lisa’s Answer: Absolutely! Search for “rotary club” and perhaps the name of the town or locality.
Question from Sally: Is broadest search METADATA? Does it catch everything?
Lisa’s Answer: No. Metadata is the default. I would strongly advise running both Metadata and text context searches for your search terms.
Question from Amy: Lisa, do you know of a way to correct records that are incorrectly or in sufficiently tagged?
Lisa’s Answer: To the best of my knowledge, you can only do that if you were the one who uploaded the item. If anyone else reading this has found a way to edit or tag other user’s items, please leave a comment below.
Question from John: You may have mentioned this but what is the difference between searching metadata or searching text?
Lisa’s Answer: Searching metadata is only searching the data (like tags) that were added to provide more information about the item. A text context search will search all the text that was typed including the title and description. I recommend searching both ways. Keep in mind that not all user’s include detailed descriptions, which is why metadata is very important.
Question from K M: Why does Allen County Library have this archive?
Lisa’s Answer: I think it may be because the Internet Archive provides affordable cloud storage which can be a big expense when offering online records.
Question from Karen: Lisa will you explain the download options?
Lisa’s Answer: Options are based on the type of item. For print publications you will often find you can download the item as an EPUB, PDF, Full Text, etc. Download options can be found by scrolling down just below the item near the description and Views. You can also found download options for Adobe files while viewing the item in the viewer. Click the three dots in a circle icon just below the search icon.
Question from Barbara: Would audio include old local radio programs?
Lisa’s Answer: Absolutely!
Question from Rita: Can you share info about how to upload something?
Lisa’s Answer: Learn more about creating your own collection at the Internet Archive.
Question from Margaret: What about information on the Mayflower?
Lisa’s Answer: Yes. Search Mayflower and then use the filters to narrow your results by Topic & Subject and by Year.
Question from Jeremy: Any pointers on Swiss Mennonites, Lisa?
Lisa’s Answer: A search of Swiss Mennonites brings up 21 items, some of which look rather interesting. Otherwise, like with all genealogy research, formulating a more specific question can help you craft a better search query at the Internet Archive.
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