Everyone that is serious about researching your family history will eventually run out of places to look for information. We all go through the usual library search, online avenues, asking the older generation and buying books to find the clues we still need in our database of information. There always seems to be one or two facts that are missing along the way. Maybe you are thinking “I finally found out the name of great-grandmaw’s father but I can’t find anything else about him. Where else can I go?”
This is when we have to look outside the box, books, and closets. One of the most overlooked sources is the Federal records, especially for the early generations. The Federal court records are unique in American history as they show families in a total different light with their manners and mores in legal interactions with the government. We have all gone through the local and state court records during our research, but few if any ever go to the Federal records to search out their ancestors. We have all gone through the marriages, death records, probate records and the many other local and state records.
Most everyone lives within a few hundred miles of one of the twelve Regional Archives of the National Archives. The Regional Archives all have more or less the same records across the nation as they contain those records that appear in Federal cases. We often fail to realize the many of our ancestors had to deal with the Federal Government. Anyone coming from another county to the United States would have had to deal with the government. We are all familiar with naturalization records and understand that sometimes these are handled in local courts, but nearly all immigrants have to enter the country prior to becoming naturalized.
One of my wife’s ancestors came into Philadelphia in the late eighteenth century. On the ship’s manifest his name is spelled “Schell”. When he got off the boat and was marched to the court house to be registered, he signs his name “Kell”. In a close look at Pennsylvania records, there is almost no mention of the name “Kell” but we find frequent mention of the name “Schell”. Of course we have to ask if this is how the clerk of the court spelled his name or is this how her ancestor thought the English would spell his name? Unfortunately, we will probably never know the answer.
Other Federal records that might prove of interest are the bankruptcy, admiralty, civil, law, chancery or equity courts. You can also find the criminal records of some of our highly publicized criminals. A small unpublished tract was given to me years ago of the biographical sketches of those criminals on death row in one of our California Federal Prisons. This information was compiled by the Warden of the Prison and was not meant to be published. The prison is now closed and these records have been shared with only the California State Archives. They do contain a wealth of information nonetheless.
You can start your search for Federal Records at the National Archives website. There are many Regional Archives around the country where you can continue your research. If you are interested, there are links to the Regional Archives Facebook pages where you can find out what is happening at each location. If you are not able to travel for your research, the website gives you information on their limited research capabilities as well as names of those who could copy the information for you.
If you decide to make a trip for your research, be sure and plan your trip. Contact the Archives of interest and check the hours, times available and if necessary to make an appointment. With all of the Federal cutbacks now in place, you cannot assume they will be open when you arrive. Sometimes they will not be open at nights and sometimes they are not open on Monday or Saturday. Remember this is not your local library that might bend the rules for you. A trip can be worth all the efforts if you have researched out everything before you leave home.
Not too long ago, I traveled to the National Archives in Washington, DC with only one goal in mind. It still took me about three hours to make a secretary understand what I wanted. When the material finally arrived at my table, I discovered that I could not copy the materials. Of course copying them would have impossible in the long run since there were 54 large boxes of materials with documents folded more than once each and crammed into the boxes. There were hundreds of documents that were each about 3 x 2 feet. The writing was in the 3 foot direction on vellum. My wife and I started copying by hand one document each and it took the better part of one and half hours per document. I gave up on getting each of them copied. I was willing to pay them to scan each of them, but they were not able to scan them. Hopefully, someday these might be available and Alabama will be grateful for them.