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NARA Records: You really need to dive deep

This post is another quick suggestion for free records you can use from home. Ancestry.com is currently offering free access to their records from the (U.S.) National Archives.


If you read this at a time when these records aren't available for free, look at FamilySearch. Also, consider using them at a library or other repository where you can use the library/institutional subscription.

You can investigate (for free) what is available online even if you have to wait to access the paid records, later.


You may have some pretty obvious records you want to check like immigration, naturalization, pensions, (federal) military service, and federal land records.

You will normally only find your ancestor in National Archives records when they interacted with the federal government. This can happen in some unusual ways so if you have time, really investigate what Ancestry has available.

(Also realize this is only a tiny fraction of what exists and is spread across all the National Archives facilities in the country).

Don't trust a search by name as that will only scratch the surface.

I was fortunate to live outside Washington, D.C. for years so I took extra time to learn about federal records.

My ancestors don't appear in many of the most common records. We're from Georgia and prior to that it'll be one of the original 13 states/colonies (so we're not from a federal land state). My family did a great job of being too young or too old for many wars (and of course, some wars drew participation from particular locations, mostly not Georgia). And if you can't tell from those descriptions, I'm not looking for federal immigration and naturalization records because of the dates when my family arrived in the U.S.

At first it seemed my ancestors wouldn't be in many federal records.

The more I learned about the records, the more I found my ancestors in them. I had to know exactly which records I wanted to check but it REALLY made their lives come alive.

Take the time and see what Ancestry (and FamilySearch and even paid sites like Fold3) have available. Then think about how your family might have interacted with the federal government. Could it be in a way those records detail?

To give you some ideas of what I found when I looked deeper:
  • I found federal pensions for military service in smaller wars (I had to check individual indexes for those exact wars, I chose them once I knew more about the dates and locations).
  • I found federal land records for military bounty land (so my ancestors sold that land, they never even saw it, but the records can still tell you things).
  • I found records because my family has a lot of moonshiners (we are from the north Georgia mountains). They broke federal tax laws and got in a lot of skirmishes with federal agents or troops over this so turns out they had a LOT to do with the federal government.
  • I found my ancestors in the records of other people, because I knew what existed and who they interacted with (who their FAN club was).
  • I BROKE A BRICK WALL OF OVER 10-YEARS STANDING with two independent accounts (that means I wasn't relying on information from one person but two independent people).
I've written more about some of these types of records.


The brick wall I broke using Guion Miller Applications. These are now completely online at Fold3 (they were not when I used them, boy I wish they had been!) Related records are also at Ancestry.

These are just some ideas that barely scratch the surface of what's available. I come from an old Georgia family. I've found just as much with my husband's immigrant ancestors. I've worked in totally different records for clients and found amazing things.

You need to figure out what exists and what applies to your family and look there. You will probably need to browse some records (instead of using a search box). You may just find a tantalizing clue and need to order copies of the paper records when you can.

Federal records are worth the time. Give them a try!







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2 comments

  1. Try the NARA Record Group Explorer. The Dept. of Veterans Affairs has only 2% of their records digitized, but most of those are the Rev. War and Civil War pension files - the same images found on Fold3, but for free. There are many, many record groups in the list and all are searchable. https://www.archives.gov/findingaid/explorer

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