- Become familiar with the most important groups of government records for genealogical research.
- Learn about subscription databases for genealogical research.
Types of Government Records Related to Genealogy
Genealogy has become an extremely popular pastime, as reflected in the viewership of television programs like Who Do You Think You Are?, Finding Your Roots, or Genealogy Roadshow. Government documents and records are essential sources for genealogical research, and libraries receive many requests for assistance from both academics and the general public.
Using the Census in Genealogical Research
The privacy of census data is protected by law and census forms cannot be released to anyone, including other government agencies, for 72 years after each census. Enumeration forms can be released to individuals to prove residency during the 72-year embargo period. The need for confidentiality was emphasized after census data was used to identify persons of Japanese ancestry prior to and during World War II so that they could be incarcerated.
Census enumeration sheets can be very important even if they don’t list the names of all the people in the household. The earliest census enumeration sheets only had room for the name of the head of the household. Other household members were simply enumerated with tick marks. It wasn’t until 1850 that each member of the household was listed by name. It’s important to remember that the early censuses only enumerated free white and black people. American Indians, and enslaved people, but persons of other ethnicities were not accounted for. There was a separate census for enslaved people starting in 1850. Indians living in or near white settlements (known in census publications as “taxed”) were counted beginning in 1870. Indians on reservations weren’t fully integrated into the census until 1940.
The 1880 census asked the birthplace of the respondents’ parents, making it and subsequent censuses more useful for genealogical researchers. Sadly, the 1890 census was partially destroyed by a fire in 1921, and later the Librarian of Congress authorized the destruction of the remaining documents. Only the section dealing with Civil War veterans has survived.
Thanks to the databases listed at the end of the chapter, anyone can have access to the publicly available census enumeration sheets. These companies have digitized the enumeration sheets from microfilm and transcribed the information on them. Prior to the existence of online versions, genealogy researchers had to go to a library or archives to laboriously scroll through the census on microfilm.
Soundex is an indexing system used for census and other records that allows similar-sounding names to be grouped together to account for variations in spelling and transcription. It was developed to allow researchers to find a surname even though it may have been recorded under various spellings. Soundex code numbers consist of a letter followed by three numbers. The letter is the first letter of the person’s last name and the letters are a code that represents the next three consonants in the name. Codes for names with fewer than three consonants following the first letter are filled out with zeros. So, for example, a person with the last name of Aea would be represented by the code A-000. H, Y, and W are treated like vowels. In the case of two consecutive letters with the same code number, the letter is only counted once. Thus, the code for Hall is H-400. Table 1 shows the numerical code numbers used in Soundex.
Table 1. Soundex Code Numbers
Represents the Letters
B, F, P, V
C, G, J, K, Q, S, X, Z
Passenger lists are an essential source of immigration information. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is the primary source of these records. Prior to 1883, passenger lists were prepared by a ship’s master to be filed with the local collector of customs. Beginning in 1883, immigration officials began to record immigrant arrivals. There are few passenger lists in existence for arrivals in the U.S. prior to 1820. Some passenger lists have been indexed, making it easier to locate individuals by name. State archives should also be consulted, for they often hold passenger lists covering the period prior to the state’s joining the union.
Prior to 1906, “Any ‘court of record’ (municipal, county, state, or Federal) could grant U.S. citizenship.” NARA does not generally hold naturalization records created in state or local courts. For these, a researcher should consult the state archives. For instance, both the Alaska and Hawaiʻi state archives hold records related to naturalization.
Passport applications indicate the date and place of birth of the applicant, citizenship status, names of other family members who accompanied the passport holder, and sometimes the travel destination or itinerary. Passport applications from 1795 to 1925 are available on microfilm at the National Archives and are also available in Ancestry.com. The State Department issues passports to U.S. citizens and maintains records of passports issued after 1925. Note that in general, a person can only request records for himself or herself or for minor children or people for whom they serve as the legal guardian. To obtain passport records for other people, a Freedom of Information Act request is required unless the requester has the person’s authorization.
Case Study: Trace Genealogy with Passport Records
By Phuong Nguyen
- Learn where to access passport records to trace genealogy
- Understand the utility and limitations of passport records
Question: How do I access or locate passport records for genealogy research?
This case study will explain how to find passport records. The use of passports can be traced back to 400 years ago, and the word “passport” was first noted in 1548. Passport applications are useful for genealogy research since they might provide information such as date and place of birth as well as a physical description along with occupation and a photograph.
The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and the United States Department of State (DOS) are the best places to access passport records for U.S. citizens. NARA has passport documents from October 1795 to March 1925, while the Department of State DOS keeps the records from April 1925 to the current day. There are some caveats when looking for U.S. passports’ applications: U.S. citizens did not need a passport until 1941 because it was not mandatory to have one to travel, and only U.S. citizens were issued a passport, though there are exceptions to both of these limitations which can be found on the NARA’s web page entitled Passport Applications. 
On the Passport Applications webpage, indexes are available for browsing, but the actual passport applications themselves are not online. A visit to NARA might be required to find these passport applications. There are other options to acquire passport applications, such as ordering passport applications from NARA using the mailing address found on the web page. For passport applications from April 1925 and onwards, as stated on the DOS web page Get Copies of Passport Records, a request needs to be mailed to their address to obtain a copy.
However, there are other ways to search and access passport applications online. There is a list on NARA of online resources that can find digitalized passport applications. One resource, FamilySearch.org, is free to use after you sign up for a free account. FamilySearch.org uses the collections M1490 and M1372 from NARA. The collection can be searched or browsed. 
The SSDI is a name index to deaths recorded by the Social Security Administration beginning in 1962. It is available through FamilySearch.org, Ancestry, and other sources. SSDI sometimes lists all of the names by which an individual may have been known in addition to the date and location of death.
Vital records include birth, death, marriage, and adoption records. These are usually handled by each state’s department of health, although copies of the records may be available elsewhere on microfilm. Custody of records varies depending upon the date of issue. For instance, in Minnesota, the Minnesota Department of Health has birth records beginning in the year 1900 and death records beginning in 1908. For records prior to those years, individuals must contact the county where the birth or death occurred. It is not uncommon for patrons to not know in which county the ancestor was born or died, thus complicating the search.
As you might recall from the fuss made over President Barack Obama’s birth certificate, access to vital records is restricted. The availability of records varies by state, including the ability of adopted children to obtain records about their birth parents and vice versa. For instance, in Alaska,
Adoption records are sealed, confidential records and require written permission from a Judge or Probate Master to disclose them. Alaska marriage and death certificates are closed to the general public for 50 years; birth certificates are closed for 100 years. Marriage license applications, however, are open to the public with the exception of the results of blood tests, when included.
The Child Welfare Information Gateway maintains a State Statutes Search that allows users to search for laws concerning access to adoption records in each state.
Divorce records may be sought from the county court in which the divorce was granted. States may have compiled divorce indexes, such as the Texas Divorce Index, 1968-2014.
Probate records cover the distribution of the property of a deceased person, a process overseen by a probate court. Originally, the term will referred to real estate while the testament covered personal property. That is why you often hear reference to a person’s “last will and testament.”
A whole series of documents make up the group of records known as probate records. These include, besides the will itself, the petition for probate of the will, the petition for letters of administration if there is no will, letters testamentary granted by the court to the executors appointed to carry out the testator’s wishes, letters of administration granted to the court-appointed administrators when no will has been executed, inventories and appraisements of the personal estates of the decedents, affidavits, sales of personal property, final accounts of the settlement, etc. Copies of wills are usually entered in record volumes in the custody of the county courthouses.
Probate records can usually be found at the county clerk’s office of the county where the deceased person resided or at the state archives.
A common type of request is from people researching an ancestor’s military service, often during World War II. Patrons want to know what Grandpa did in the war, but it can be very difficult to find out! The starting point for this type of research would be for the patron to request a copy of the ancestor’s service record. The NARA website has extensive guidance on this process. The form DD-214 states in which units a person served and includes the dates of service. Knowing these basic facts is a key for searching for unit histories and other sources. However, unless the ancestor was a high-ranking officer, it may be difficult to get detailed information about where he or she served and which duties the servicemember performed. Some military service records are available online through NARA. Military records cover draft registration, casualties, service in specific conflicts, deaths, courts-martial, and pensions. Draft records are also available in Ancestry.
Digital copies of registers of officers and other military history resources are available in HathiTrust. Other sources of unit histories are listed in the Congressional Research Service report Military Service Records and Unit Histories: A Guide to Locating Sources.
Thousands of bills for private laws have been introduced in Congress over the past two centuries. These bills, and the supporting documentation, provide important information about individuals and property. Private bills cover all kinds of claims, from pension benefits to property damage caused during the Civil War. The records related to private legislation include letters, narrative statements, and even the transcripts of hearings held on the bills.
Large numbers of private bills were introduced before, during, and after World War II to resolve immigration and citizenship problems due to racial exclusion laws and immigrant quotas. In many cases, such as those affecting war brides and adopted children from Japan, the only way to get an exception to the immigration laws was to pass a private law enabling the individual to be treated as if the public law did not apply to him or her. These circumstances affected Peter Buck, also known as Te Rangi Hīroa, an anthropologist from New Zealand and a director of the Bishop Museum in Honolulu. He was prevented from becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen because he was half Maori. A bill introduced by Hawaiʻi’s delegate Joseph Farrington would have enabled him to be naturalized. Although the bill was passed in Congress, it was vetoed by the president. House and Senate reports on these private immigration bills often include personal information about the subjects such as their places of employment, names and ages of children, and other biographical details.
Another type of case is claims against the U.S. government. During World War II, a number of individuals were injured or suffered property damage caused by the actions of servicemembers. In one tragic case, 12-year old John Waipa Wilson of Nānākuli, Hawaiʻi was walking down a road one day in 1943 when he was struck by a hook dangling from a speeding Army truck. He suffered a severe head injury and was bedridden for the remainder of his life. A private bill provided for his parents to be paid $20,000 in compensation for the injury and to cover medical care. The House report on the bill gives detailed information about John Wilson’s family and their circumstances as well as medical information that would be protected from public release under today’s laws.
Another source of genealogical information on some individuals is the records and proceedings of the Office of the Alien Property Custodian (APC). The APC managed property seized from enemy aliens in World War I and World War II under the Trading with the Enemy Act. Seized property could include real property, cash, insurance policies, patents, and other assets. Seizures during WWI usually involved German individuals and corporations, such as the Hackfeld Company in Hawaiʻi. Its assets were sold and formed the basis of Amfac, one of the vaunted “Big 5” companies.
Seizures in World War II involved people and companies from many enemy countries, including Japan. One Hawaiʻi-related case serves to illustrate. Shoichi Asami was the editor of the Hawaii Times. As a prominent Japanese person, he was sent to an internment camp in Texas. Later, he and his entire family went to Japan as part of a program to exchange Japanese and Japanese-Americans for Americans who were being held in Japan or its territories. The Asami’s property on 22nd Avenue in Honolulu, their bank account, and an insurance policy were seized and the assets were held by the APC. A vesting order [text version] was published in the Federal Register detailing the seized property. In most cases, the individuals and companies did not get their property back once hostilities had ceased, because seized property was considered to be compensation for damage inflicted on the U.S. by its enemies.
Maps and aerial photographs are also important sources of genealogical information. A patron may be looking for the village in China from which his ancestors came or even looking for maps or photographs that show individual houses or buildings. It’s important to bear in mind that most map collections are only partially cataloged, and digital map collections represent only a tiny fraction of the holdings of map libraries. Bibliographic records do not really capture the content of maps or aerial photographs in the way that tagging or metadata can. As in archival collections, contact with the map librarian is critical to ensure that all of the possible sources of information are consulted.
Land records, as mentioned in Chapter 14, are another essential source of information about people who owned real property. General Land Office records include township survey plats, land district maps, private land claims, land patents, land descriptions, tractbooks, homestead files, and many other types of records. Note that not all states were , so they are not included in its records.
Not infrequently, we hear from an individual who wishes to obtain a copy of a government report written by a relative. This can be difficult if the patron does not have a bibliographic citation, because not all government reports state the names of personal authors. Similarly, many people worked as illustrators for the federal government, but their works may not have been attributed.
The Official Register of the United States was published from 1816 to 1959. It listed the administrative and supervisory employees in all branches of government and was formerly known as the “Blue Book.” In addition to listing employees, their titles, and their places of employment, it also listed their residences and compensation.
Ancestry and Fold3 are subscription-based products in the Ancestry.com family. The company manages a robust program to digitize public-domain materials found in archives and libraries. Some researchers may experience frustration with having to pay a subscription fee for materials that are available for free in the archives. However, Ancestry provides value-added services such as transcription and indexing that make records vastly easier to find and use, not to mention the fact that the resources are available remotely and do not require a personal visit to the archives.
In 2013, Ancestry announced that it would collaborate with FamilySearch, a free genealogy site operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The Church has long been known for its family history centers, which help people (whether they are church members or not) to research their ancestry. FamilySearch, originally the Genealogical Society of Utah, began to microfilm U.S. and international family history records. The agreement between Ancestry and FamilySearch will allow people access to some of FamilySearch’s records through Ancestry and vice-versa.
Many libraries subscribe to Ancestry so that cardholders can use it for genealogical research. Especially useful is the ability to search for census records. Ancestry also includes indexes, vital records, passenger records, and the full text of reference books. Subscribers are also able to upload photographs and documents and connect with other researchers.
Fold3 is a database of military records that includes both free resources and resources available only to subscribers. For instance, one can find Pearl Harbor muster rolls (subscription) and photographs of Air Force crews in the Aleutians during World War II (free).
Some libraries subscribe to HeritageQuest, a ProQuest product that includes digitized Census records, PERSI (Periodical Source Index), records from the American Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land Warrant Applications files, the Freedman’s Bank, and memorials, petitions and private relief programs in the U. S. Congressional Serial Set.
Biography and Genealogy Master Index (BGMI) “indexes reference works that include biographical information on multiple persons. Sources include biographical dictionaries, who’s whos, subject encyclopedias, and volumes of literary criticism. It also acts as an index to other indexes that point users to biographical data.” BGMI is more helpful with research on notable persons rather than ordinary citizens.
Historical Records Survey
During the Great Depression and into World War II, the Work Projects Administration (later Works Progress Administration or WPA) initiated an employment program called the Historical Records Survey. Its purpose was to locate and describe records at the county level across the U.S. The bibliographies resulting from the surveys conducted by the WPA are listed in Bibliography Research Projects Report, Check List of Historical Records Survey Publications. In it, one can find entries such as Historical Sites and Landmarks of Alameda County, California and Cemetery Readings in West Virginia. Each entry includes a complete bibliographic citation but no annotations.
Librarians should maintain awareness of community resources for genealogy research. Which libraries or archives have the best collections? Are there individuals, organizations, or community groups that have expertise in researching genealogy in a particular ethnic group? For instance, the Okinawan Genealogical Society of Hawaii published Beginner’s Guide to Geneaology Research Okinawa
A wealth of information has been collected in this volume. Entire sections cover population, land records, and immigration and military records. Additional chapters cover special groups like Native Americans, African Americans, civilians during wartime, and government employees. It helpfully lists many additional indexes and guides for specific sets of records.
Mulcahy, B. L. (2011). Works Progress Administration (WPA) Historical Records Survey. Fort Myers, FL: Fort Myers-Lee County Library. http://sites.rootsweb.com/~flmgs/articles/Works_Projects_AdministrationMarch2011_BM.pdf
This article provides a history of the Historical Records Survey and a detailed analysis of its coverage for each state.
- U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. (2007). The Soundex indexing system. https://www.archives.gov/research/Census/soundex.html ↵
- Eales, A. B. & Kvasnicka, R. M. (Eds.). (2000). Genealogical research in the National Archives of the United States. (3rd ed.). Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 54-55. ↵
- U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. Naturalization records. https://www.archives.gov/research/naturalization ↵
- U.S. Department of State. Passport Office. (1976). The United States passport: Past, present, future. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office. ↵
- U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. (2018). Passport applications. Retrieved from https://www.archives.gov/research/passport. ↵
- Passport applications. ↵
- Passport applications. ↵
- U.S. Department of State. (n.d.). Get copies of passport records. Retrieved from https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/passports/have-passport/passport-records.html. ↵
- FamilySearch. (2019). United States passport applications, 1795-1925. Retrieved from https://www.familysearch.org/search/collection/2185145. ↵
- Alaska State Archives. Genealogy. https://archives.alaska.gov/genealogy/genealogy.html ↵
- Rubincam, M. (Ed.). (1980). Genealogical research: Methods and sources. (Rev. ed.). Washington, D.C. :The American Society of Genealogists, 107. ↵
- U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Immigration and Naturalization. (1944). Peter Henry Buck. 78th Congress, 2nd Session, H.rp. no. 1018. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office. ↵
- U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on the Judiciary. (1949). Legal guardian of John Waipa Wilson. 81st Congress, 1st Session, H.rp. no. 393. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office. ↵
- 9 FR 11082 (1944). ↵
- Gale Cengage Learning. Title list / about the sources. ↵
- Work Projects Administration (1943). Bibliography research projects report, check list of historical records survey publications. Washington, D.C.: Work Projects Administration. ↵
- Okinawan Genealogical Society of Hawaii (2012). Beginner's guide to geneaology research Okinawa. Honolulu: Okinawan Genealogical Society of Hawaii. ↵
Public Land States are those that were formed from public lands. Western public land states: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. Eastern public land states: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, and Wisconsin.