National Archives and Records Administration

Old record book

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is the official repository in the United States for Federal records. For genealogists, it is a primary location for researching their family trees.

Background

The National Archives and Records Administration was established in 1934 as a way to centralize governments records. Prior to that time, each department and agency of the government was responsible for maintaining its own records. While the archives was started in the 20th century, its holdings now include records dating back hundreds of years.

The main archive building is located on the Main Mall in Washington, D.C. This building, built in 1935, has exhibits of priceless American documents, such as the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Constitution. The NARA building also houses research facilities for researchers.

An additional archive facility in the D.C. area was opened in 1994. Located on the University of Maryland, College Park campus, this site eased the space constraints of the Main Mall location.

Holdings

While it only keeps a small fraction of the records generated each year, NARA's holding are extensive. It is estimated that NARA has:

  • Nine billion pages of text records
  • Over seven million photos, drawings, charts and maps
  • 110,000 video tapes
  • 365,000 reels of film

Those items maintained by NARA are kept because they are either important to the workings of the government, are of historical significance, or are of interest to citizens.

Those collections of particular interest to genealogists include the following:

  • All Federal censuses, beginning with the first one in 1790
  • Immigration records, including ships passenger lists
  • Military service records
  • Land records, particularly Federal land records
  • Naturalization records
  • Native American tribal member lists, such as the Dawes Rolls

Regional Archives

NARA is not just located in Washington, DC. There are 14 regional archives in 11 states. These regional centers are:

Anchorage Pacific Alaska Region
California Riverside Pacific Region
California San Francisco/San Bruno Pacific Region
Colorado Denver Rocky Mountain Region
Georgia Atlanta Southeast Region
Illinois Chicago Great Lakes Region
Massachusetts Boston Northeast Region
Massachusetts Pittsfield Northeast Region
Missouri Kansas City National Archives at Kansas City
Missouri St. Louis Archival Research Room at the National Personnel Records Center
New York New York City Northeast Region
Pennsylvania Philadelphia Mid Atlantic Region
Texas Ft. Worth Southwest Region
Washington Seattle Pacific Alaska Region

The regional archives each have the same major holdings, such as the censuses and military service records. They also have holdings unique to the area. The National Archives Southwest Region in Ft. Worth, for example, has Federal agency and court records for Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana. There is also particular emphasis on Native American documents.

Using the National Archives

Every genealogist should plan a research trip to NARA, either to the Washington, D.C. location or to one of the regional archives. The large holdings warrant an extended stay.The research rooms include computer access, where visitors may use the NARA subscriptions to Ancestry.com, Footnote, and Heritage Quest for free. Census images and indexes are also available on microfilm, as are other collections of interest to genealogists.

Another way to use the National Archives is by visiting the website. While the censuses are not available online, there are many other valuable databases that you can access for free. Here are just a few of those accessible online:

  • Dawes Rolls Index and Final Rolls
  • Casualty Lists for World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War
  • Fugitive Slave Case Papers, 1850-1860
  • World War II Army Enlistment Records, 1938-1946

The National Archives and Records Administration is full of records and documents of interest to genealogists. With locations all around the country, you should plan a visit soon.

National Archives and Records Administration