5 Branches of US Military Records for Genealogy

Finding US military records for genealogy depends on which of the five branches your relative served in:

  • Army
  • Navy
  • Air Force
  • Marines
  • or Coast Guard.

Here, military expert Michael Strauss introduces each one and tells us where to look for their records, both online and offline.

Over the last 30+ years doing genealogy research, I’ve discovered that nearly all of my family members who served in the military were in the United States Army. But I have been occasionally surprised to find relatives who served in other branches of the military, like my grandfather’s first cousin, Russell G. Strauss, shown below.

His uniform indicated that he was a third class petty officer in the Navy during the war. I looked further at his uniform and noticed a diamond shaped “S” as part of the insignia. This military occupation indicated that he was a specialist that would require further research. I spoke with a couple of my older family members who knew Russell. All of my family interviewed said that he in the military police (M.P.) during the war. With additional research, I discovered that his insignia was that of the Shore Patrol. On Ancestry.com, I found his application for compensation from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania when he served in the Shore Patrol in Norfolk, Virginia as part of his military duty:

Finding US military records for genealogy

If you’d like to learn gems like these about your relatives, you need to know that US military records for genealogy research are organized separately for the five branches: Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and the Coast Guard. Some branches have more online research resources than others. In a future article, I’ll talk about identifying military service details based on pictures like I did above. This article introduces the five branches and where to start learning about them.

US Army and its records

The largest of the five military branches dates back to June 14, 1775, during the early days of the Revolutionary War. Prior to the formation of the Army, each colony had companies and battalions of Associators and local militia. With the war, the need for a professional standing army to fight the British saw the formation of the Continental Army.

With the end of the Revolutionary War, the Army disbanded in 1783 after the signing of the Treaty of Paris. Later in 1796, the two legions formed under the command of General Anthony Wayne would later become the nucleus of the United States Army. The Encyclopedia Britannica published this nice article on the history of the Army from its inception to the present.

A number of excellent genealogical resources are available to search for ancestors who served in the United States Army since the beginning. These databases are found on Ancestry, Fold3, and FamilySearch. One of the largest collections of records covers the United States Regular Army enlistments from 1798 to 1914 (available by subscription at Ancestry.com). Searching the card catalogs of Ancestry.com, Fold3 and FamilySearch will yield many databases that contain information about soldiers who served and sacrificed their lives with the Army over the last two centuries.

US Navy and its records

For those who had ancestors who trod the quarterdeck of a frigate, the United States Navy has a fine tradition of service. On October 13, 1775, it was officially established by an Act passed by the Continental Congress. At the end of the Revolutionary War, it was disbanded but again was reestablished under the Naval Act of 1794, which created the Navy as a permanent branch of the military.

The earlier period of naval history is called the “Old Navy.” It was the age of wooden sailing ships. Still later came the birth of the ironclads (during the Civil War). The later period, called the “New Navy,” occurred with further innovations in the late nineteenth century, as the United States transformed into a global power.

The United States Navy website has a nice background history of the service. Numerous databases and searches for records of the Navy covering multiple war period detailing pensions, continental sailors, muster rolls, ships logs, and cruise books are located on Ancestry.com, Fold3, and FamilySearch.  Consult each database individually for records of interest.

Another organization related to the Navy is the United States Merchant Marines. Although not officially a branch of the military, the Merchant Marines sacrificed and lost lives since the days of the Revolutionary War, carrying out their missions of supply and logistics during times of war. Here’s an excellent website on the history of the Merchant Marines.

US Air Force and its records

Officially the youngest of the military branches, the Air Force was formed as part of the Security Act of 1947. But the Air Force and military aviation history began under the authority of the United States Army starting on August 1, 1907, when it was organized under the name of the Aeronautical Division of the Signal Corps. Over the next 30 years the service changed names several times:

  • Aviation Section of the Signal Corps (1914-1918);
  • Division of Military Aeronautics (1918);
  • Air Service of the United States Army (1918-1926);
  • United States Army Air Corps (1926-1941);
  • United States Army Air Forces (1941-1947).

In that final year, it was separated as its own organization as it is known today. Click here for a complete history of the Air Force from 1907 to the present.

Two excellent online sources covering the early history of the Air Force from World War I and World War II are located on Fold3:

US Marines and its records

This elite branch of the military began with the organization of the Continental Marines on November 19, 1775. The mission of the Marines initially comprised ship-to-ship fighting, security on-board naval vessels, and assistance in landing force operations. This mission would continue to evolve over the years.

At the end of the Revolutionary War, the Marines were disbanded (like the Navy). But along with the Navy, under the Naval Act of 1794 the United States Marines were again re-established and would serve faithfully in every major war period and in peacetime between conflicts. The Marines will forever remain true to their motto of “Semper Fidelis” or “Always Faithful” as they continue to live up to their long-running tradition of honor and service. Here’s an interesting (and accurate) history of the Marine Corps.

Ancestry.com has an excellent online genealogical resource for discovering Marine Corps ancestors: fully searchable Marine Corps muster rolls from 1798 to 1958 for enlistees.

US Coast Guard and its records

Although first envisioned as a force of revenue tax collectors, the Coast Guard’s ability to conduct diverse missions during peacetime and war became the hallmark of this service. Its history dates back to August 4, 1790. Established as the Revenue Cutter Marines under the direction of Alexander Hamilton, the name was changed in 1894 to the Revenue Cutter Service. In 1915, Congress passed and signed the “Act to Create Coast Guard.” In so doing, the United States Live Saving Service and Revenue Cutter Service came together. Later, in 1939, the United States Light House Service was added to form the modern-day United States Coast Guard.

The complete history of the United States Coast Guard from 1790 is online at its Historians Office. It includes information about each of the separate organizations that came together to form the Coast Guard.

Genealogy giant Ancestry.com has a collection of casualties of the Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard. Very few additional online sources are available online for this branch of the service. Researchers must access these documents and records onsite at the National Archives in Washington, DC.

More on US military records for genealogy

As the Military Minutes contributor to the free Genealogy Gems Podcast, Michael Strauss is systematically guiding us through the world of US military records for genealogy. Click above to listen–or below to read up on what he’s already taught here at Genealogy Gems:

Intro to US military terminology: regular, volunteer, or militiaman?

Compiled Military Service Records: US Military Records before the 1900s

Official Military Personnel Files for WWI, WWII and beyond

US draft registration records: Civil War to WWII and beyond

Author: Michael Strauss, AG

Author: Michael Strauss, AG

Michael Strauss, AG is the principal owner of Genealogy Research Network and an Accredited Genealogist since 1995. He is a native of Pennsylvania and a resident of Utah and has been an avid genealogist for more than 30 years. Strauss holds a BA in History and is a United States Coast Guard veteran.

Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links and Genealogy Gems will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on these links (at no additional cost to you). Thank you for supporting Genealogy Gems!

Find Your U.S. Ancestors in These New Genealogy Records Online

Learn more about U.S. ancestors in new genealogy records for Navy and Marine officers, WWI veterans, historical and genealogical journals, and new genealogy records for 12 U.S. states: Ala., Ark., Hawaii, Kan., La., Mass., Miss., Mont., N.Y., Texas, Utah, and Va. 

new genealogy records

Following are new genealogy records (and updated collections) for the U.S. and several U.S. states. In which may your ancestors appear?

U.S. Navy and Marine Corps Officer Registries. Ancestry.com subscribers may search a new database, “U.S., Navy and Marine Corps Registries, 1814-1992.” From the collection description: “This collection includes registers of officers of the US Navy and Marine Corps from between the years of 1814 and 1992. Within these records you can expect to find: name, rank, ship or station.” (Note: the above image shows the first group of female Marine officer candidates in 1943; click here to learn more and see this image’s citation.)

World War I Veteran’s History Project: Part II Launches. The Veterans History Project has launched “Over There,” the second in a three-part, online web series dedicated to United States veterans of the First World War. “Over There” highlights 10 digitized World War I collections found in the Veterans History Project archive. Click here to access Part II and other veterans’ collections featured in “Over There.” Part III will be available in fall of 2017. (Click here to read the full announcement from the Library of Congress.)

U.S. and Canada journals. PERSIPERSI, the Periodical Source Index, has been updated with historical and genealogical journal content covering Ontario, Canada as well as Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Michigan, & Rhode Island. Search PERSI at Findmypast.com to discover articles, transcribed records, and images of your ancestors and their communities, churches, schools and more in thousands of journals. Some journals are index-only and others have digitized articles: click here to learn more about PERSI.

Statewide: New genealogy records

  • Alaska: Ancestry.com has a new database of Alaska, Vital Records, 1818 -1963. It contains birth, marriage, and death records.
  • Arkansas: A new digital exhibit tells the story of the first African-American college west of the Mississippi River, located in Phillips County. Lives Transformed: The People of Southland College “includes photos and scanned images of letters, circulars, forms, the Southland newspaper and other ephemera, including invitations, the catalog of studies, a diploma, and a commencement program,” states a news report.
  • Hawaii: Over 300,000 indexed names have been added to a free FamilySearch.org collection of Hawaiian obituaries since 1980.
  • Kansas: New browsable image collections of Kansas state census records for 1865, 1875, 1885 and 1895 are now free to search at FamilySearch.org. The growing size of each collection by year–from 4,701 pages in 1865 to 116,842 pages in 1895–witnesses the tremendous growth of this prairie state after the Homestead Act of 1862 opened its land for cheap purchase and settlement. (Did you know? Kansas census records 1855-1940 at Ancestry.com are also available for free to Kansas residents.) Click here to learn more about state census records in the U.S.
  • Louisiana: Over 100,000 new images and thousands of indexed names have been added to FamilySearch’s free collection of Louisiana death records (1850-75, 1894-1960).
  • Massachusetts: More than half a million names are in 22 volumes of sacramental records (baptisms, confirmations, marriages, deaths) for the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, Archdiocese of Boston, now online at AmericanAncestors.com.
  • Mississippi: Ancestry.com has updated its collection of Mississippi Naturalization Records, 1907-2008. This collection pertains to naturalizations finalized after 1906, when most were taken care of in federal courts.
  • Montana: Find a new collection of Montana County Marriages, 1865-1993 at Ancestry.com. Details for both the bride and groom may include name, age at marriage, and marriage date/place. (You may also access this collection for free at FamilySearch.org.)
  • New York: The Leon Levy BAM Digital Archive has added more than 70,000 playbills, posters, and ephemera from the history of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, dating to the Civil War era. (We found this in a New York Times report.)
  • Texas. Ancestry.com has updated its database, “Texas, Select County Marriage Records, 1837-2015.” The collection description states, “This collection consists of a mix of marriage licenses, returns, certificates, affidavits, and indexes. The documents that are available in this database vary depending on the county. All marriage records include the names of the bride and groom, as well as the date of the license and/or marriage. In many instances, additional details are available as well.” This collection continues to be updated: keep checking back!
  • Utah: There’s a new digital archive of photos, yearbooks, and other documents relating to the history of Brigham Young College in Logan, Utah. The school taught high school and college courses and was open 1877-1926. Learn more about it in a news report at HJnews.com.
  • Virginia: A decade’s worth of obituaries from the Evening Star (Winchester, 1899-1909) are now available at subscription site Findmypast.com.

Did you see the new Genealogy Gems Book Club announcement for this week? It’s a new memoir by a U.S. journalist who tracks down an old family story about her immigrant roots. You won’t want to miss this family history murder mystery! Click here to learn more about the book and watch a trailer for its PBS documentary.

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links and Genealogy Gems will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on these links. Thank you for supporting Genealogy Gems!

We Dig These Gems! New Genealogy Records Online

We dig these gems new genealogy records online

Every Friday, we blog about new genealogy records online. Do any of the collections below relate to your family history? This week seems to be all about U.S. records: newspapers, military and railroad employees.

U.S. NAVY SURVIVORS. A new collection with nearly 2 million records from case files of Navy approved pension applications (1861-1910) is now searchable on Fold3. These include Civil War survivors and later Navy veterans.

U.S. NEWSPAPERS. Over 450 historical newspaper titles for all 50 states (1730-1900) have been added to GenealogyBank. Over 160 of the papers date to the 1700s. Notable are an Ohio (Northwest Territory) paper from 1795, a New Orleans paper from 1803 and a Detroit paper from 1817.

PENNSYLVANIA NEWSPAPERS. Notable recent additions at Newspapers.com include nearly 400,000 pages of the Wilkes-Barre Record (1881-1949PA) and over 400,000 pages of the Standard-Speaker (1961-2000, Hazleton, PA).

U.S. RAILROAD RECORDS. Ancestry subscribers can access the Chicago and North Western Railroad Employment Records, 1935-1970. The line passed through Wisconsin, Minnesota, SD, Iowa and Nebraska. The collection includes Social Security numbers (born before 1912) and applications (with parents’ names), birth and death date, residences and occupational details.

check_mark_circle_400_wht_14064Google search tip: Though no longer actively digitizing and indexing newspapers, Google News Archive can help you locate online content for specific newspapers. Click here to access its alphabetical listing of newspapers. You can also enter keyword-searches in the search box on that webpage for all the newspapers listed here. There’s an entire chapter on the Google News Archive and what it can still do for us in The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox by Lisa Louise Cooke, fully revised and updated in 2015.

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