One Day at the National Archives?

NARA resource room 203Sacrilege!? Yes, but probably a reality for some.

So, let’s see if we can find any significant documents in just one day at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. [1]

In this example, you could pull two Civil War pensions, two Compiled Military Service records (CMSR) and two or more land records related to one or more of the federal land grants (homestead, Timber or Mineral Culture, etc. I selected these records because they are easy to pull, and are usually on everyone’s list of documents.

Obviously, pre-planning is key.

Before you go:

  1. Identify all your Civil War ancestors and obtain their pension card from (“U.S., Civil War Pension Index: General Index to Pension Files, 1861-1934”). Copy each card into a document for each soldier/sailor. If you cannot find their pension card in Ancestry, try the “Soldiers and Sailors Database” ( hosted by the National Park Service. Your goal is to obtain  from the website the unit regiment number, state, company and type of unit. Make note of these for your soldiers/sailors. You now have a list of soldiers/sailors who fought in the war and images of their pension card.
  2. Identify all individuals who might have obtained a Homestead or homestead type lands. Even if your ancestors didn’t obtain land under the 1862 act, they may have acquired property under the many subsequent acts. You can conduct a name search on the Bureau of Land Management site (  Using the BLM site, record each ancestor’s name, the office through which they obtained the land, the legal description and the final account number.
  3. Make a lunch for the next day.

If you have 4 or more records identified in each of the Civil War pensions, CSMRs and land records, prioritize them. You will probably not be able to capture them all in one day.

Tip #1: If you are super efficient you will have obtained your researcher card the day before your research day. Try for late in the day (3:30 pm) when there is no line.

Research Day:

9:00 am

On the day you arrive, be there at 9:00 a.m. when NARA opens. You will go through a TSA-type scanner, sign in, and stand in line to get your researcher card. This can take an hour. Use your new card to scan in at the front desk.

Tip #2: It is likely that NARA will be adding an additional pull time (that’s when they go get the records) Since it is unknown when this will occur, for the purposes of this post, I am assuming the first pull is at 10:00 am.

Grab some of the blanks of the Reference request forms and of the military request forms as you have identified ancestors. You can pick these up on a table opposite the desk where you scanned your card.

Fill out your first military form. In the researcher’s name field, enter your name  (last name first), then enter your researcher number from your new researcher card, your soldiers/sailors name, and unit identification in the boxes noted. Place an X in the box for “service record.” Fill out as many of the forms as you have ancestors which might have CSMRs. You are done with with your requests for CSMRs. Next, fill out the military forms the same way you did for the CSMRs, only this time add the numbers from the Ancestry pension index, making sure you have the numbers lined up correctly within the category, e.g. widow, minor, etc. It is a little tricky. Put an X in the box opposite the word “Pension”. Take forms to the front desk where you scanned your card and hand them for review. They will fill in the rest of the boxes and check your work.

Walk your corrected and approved forms over to the Microform transactions desk and place in the small wooden box opposite the transaction desk.

You likely got those four pull slips in before the 10:00 pull. Congratulations! You now have to wait for the NARA employees to get the documents and deliver them to the second floor. But, you are super efficient and well prepared, you have other work to do.

10:00 am

While you are waiting for your military records, take your four Reference forms into the consultation room. While you wait for an archivist to help you, fill out your name and researcher number and your land records facts in the space provided (name, legal description, Land Office and final certificate number). The Archivist will review and complete filling out the forms and submit them for the next pull at 11:00.

10:35 am

Now go put your stuff into a locker. I keep only my laptop, my phone/camera and my cables and, of course, my researcher card. Everything else goes into the locker.

10:45 am

It is possible your records are now waiting for you, otherwise, you have a little time to “kill.” Think about your next priority….carded medical records? Enlistment records (important if you think your soldier was a substitute), more land records, legislative correspondence or private claims? Information on nurses of the CW, or something else you want to get?

If a consultation with an Archivist would help, this would be a good time to have a brief chat. Or, if looking at Ancestry, Fold3 or other website would help at this point, consider using the computers at the 1st floor. Also, you could take a side trip to the Innovation Hub to see whether scanning a document for the NARA website is something you want to do. (To volunteer to do scanning, you have to declare that on your form in advance of submission.)

11:00 am

Go up to the second floor and find a station in the front room or the room to your left. Set up your computer and your camera. Watch for the guy in the blue “lab coat” as they are the individuals who deliver the documents.

Tip # 3: I suggest you locate your workstation facing the window because, for photography, the light is better coming at you. It reduces the amount of shadows on your documents.

Tip #4: If you have a regular digital SLR camera you might check out the camera stands they have available for your use. At a minimum, pick up the plastic flat pieces to weigh down those sharply folded papers, so you can take a better quality photo of them.

11:30 am

You have your first box of documents!! Woo hoo. And, you are all set to go. Pick a pension file. These are thick large envelopes. Sign the slip, and take the envelop to your work station. Carefully remove it from the envelope. Before you do ANYTHING else, take a photo of your green pull slip that came with your documents. Do this every time.

Tip #5: If you come across a series of documents with a staple or any other type of fastener, take it to the front desk and ask if they can remove it. Removal makes the photographing so much easier and the archivists want them removed. They will give you a substitute.

Your pension could take a full hour to photograph. If it doesn’t take that long, pull your next document, probably one of the CMSRs, as these are usually much shorter documents to review.

By this time, the documents may have suggested other documents to review. For example, is there reference to a court martial? Then perhaps you should check the court martial finding aids in the consultation room.

Start keeping a future research log for your next trip to the Archives.

12:30 pm

Take a lunch break. You will have to pack up your things and remove them from the research room. The quickest lunch is to bring your lunch, but there is a cafeteria downstairs that serves freshly made sandwiches, drinks and snacks.

If you have other pull slips, put those into the box, but there is no purpose in asking for things that you will not get to.

Tip #6: If you have decided that you wish to come back the next day, they will hold your records for you.

1:00 am

Go back to the research room and set up your work station again on 2nd floor. Start reviewing your next pension record.

2:00 pm

Review your two Compiled Military Service Records. These are usually very quick. If you are lucky your ancestor has some personal papers in the file as well….this generally means he did something wrong or questionable…so, more paperwork! Carded medical records are also very quick to review.

3:00 pm

Review your land records. If you put in four this will take at least an hour to review and photograph. Mine were very tightly packaged and so you will need that plastic sheet to weigh the folds down.

4:30 pm

There are no pulls after 4:00 and there are no records handed out after 4:30. So you are done for the day. You have very efficiently reviewed two pension records, two CMSR and at least two land records, and you have a research plan for your next trip to the Archives! Good job.

Tip#7: It is now 4:30 pm, no more pulls or documents handed out, exit the building and walk around to the public side.  Even in July, at this time of day, there will probably not be any lines. Walk in and visit our country’s most important documents: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Follow the signs to the Rotunda.

Now, the genealogy work really begins. You will want to file all your photos, transcribe the documents and link them to the proper ancestor in your database. This could take many days to record all the documents that you gathered in just one day!

Happy Hunting!


What I have done since the last post: visited with my newly found cousin on my mother’s side, flew back to Seattle, took a nap with my cat on my lap, started sorting my genealogy “stuff”, recorded my expenses in my expense sheet. Started working on transcriptions of a land record of my great grandfather.

[1] It is possible to have success in 4 hours for a well-prepared researcher with a research card, but I am assuming that my “typical” researcher is a first timer.


Gen-Fed: “What is Past is Prologue.”

I enjoyed Gen-Fed; those of you who follow me on Facebook know that already! I feel more comfortable working within NARA, with the Staff and the records, and even the website, than I did before I arrived.  Here are some of my research observations of my week.  Specific tips will be covered later.

  • One of the easiest records to pull is a Civil War pension or a Civil War Compiled Military Service Record (CMSR). If you have individuals who served in the Civil War, I recommend that these records be pulled first.  Pick up the military form, fill it out, take it to the desk on first floor. They will review your work and make sure you have entered things correctly. You then put it into the pick up box. And you are done with that request. You can put in a maximum of 4 requests per hour.
  • Picking up the pension/CMSR isn’t that hard either. After the pull of the record, you go to the research room on 2nd floor, turn left and go to the far wall (in the next room) to request your file. Of course, there are security stops along the way but the actual process of picking up a record is simple. Have fun!
  • I call these types of records “episodic;” that is, you request a file by given & surname and you get it. You review one, and that is it. Bounty land records fall into this category as well (with an extra step).
  • “Longitudinal research” is what I call subject research.  Longitudinal research “feels” more like a fishing expedition where you are looking at subject files (not filed by surname) that may or may not directly refer to your ancestor.  NARA is really set up for longitudinal research. Therefore, one week will never seem enough for this type of research.
  • I had to manage my expectations. We get used to “grazing Ancestry” and finding (or not) hits with some regularity. Archival research, especially longitudinal research, is contemplative and strategic– one cannot expect positive results on the hour.  It just doesn’t happen.  If you get a “hit” with one record a day—consider that a good day. Two?–total win.

I think my comments above go to my core issue–NARA research is different, and it has something to do with the fact they file by record group, but there is more to it than that. NARA seems  overwhelming, but like life–you take it a chunk at a time.

In any archive, there is a total dependence on the archivist that is not true of researching in a library.  That is not a bad thing; I love having interactions with a deeply knowledgeable archivist.  I am grateful for the experienced archivists and I am very gentle with those that are still learning the records.  All of us were there at one time or another. In archives, we have to “ask for help.” And, it’s OK if we do!

I could have been better prepared for my Gen-Fed experience, — maybe “better” is the wrong word. Maybe the right word is “differently.” It is one of those things where you say to yourself, “If I knew then what I know now…” I should have done more reading of the NARA publications, particularly of the ones I would most likely access–Civil War Records and land records. I have some NARA directories in my library and I should have reviewed those. I should have spent more time online getting very familiar with the website…shoulda, shoulda, shoulda.

The reality is that now that I have gone through Gen-Fed, those books and the website make a whole lot more sense than they did before, so I question whether I would have been more knowledgeable or just more frustrated, if I have done more reading.

GenFed actually leaves you some time to conduct research during the week–the urban myth of no research time at Gen-Fed is false. Malissa and Debra have done a good job of scheduling. For example, I had the form filled out at Archive II and put into the pull box, before we even started the presentations in the morning. When the morning talks were over, I went and picked up the file. Since I had brought my lunch, I could review the file and then eat lunch all before the afternoon sessions.

Did I mention that I loved my classmates? They were all so smart and so eager to learn. It was great fun sharing discoveries and being supportive even when that special record just didn’t happen! Thanks.

Next blog will be some specific hints for a successful GenFed experience or NARA visitation.

Happy hunting!


What I have done since the last posting: vacationed with my family on the Cape, presented at the Falmouth Genealogy Society, worked on and submitted my presentations for the International Germanic American Conference; and responded to questions from the registrants for the next Certification Discussion Group and added folks to the wait list. (I already have a long wait list for the Fall and even winter session, but don’t let that impede you from sending me an email and signing up–the list isn’t going to get shorter if you wait.) And, of course, GenFed and some of my own research.

Gen-Fed 2017: Preparation

NARAI am going to Gen-Fed! I was lucky enough last February to hit the registration button at minute 3 and get into the highly competitive institute, Gen-Fed 2017, held in Washington, DC.[2] Genealogical Institute on Federal Records (Gen-Fed) is a week-long series of classes concentrating on the records held at the National Archives. I will meet up with 40 genealogists who have the same interests in history, genealogy and archival research as I do.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the National Archives (NARA), they collect, store and preserve the records of the federal government.[3] Think of NARA as the “nation’s file cabinet.” Their collection includes our country’s foundational documents, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence, and the correspondence of senators and representatives, and records of federal appointments (think postmasters), naturalizations, military records, etc.

I have been told there won’t be much time to do personal research and so I have planned my trip for two extra days at the end of the institute—Saturday and Monday. It won’t be enough, but we will see how much I can accomplish in that time.

I prepare in advance for any research trip and this one especially so because of my lack of familiarity with this archive. I have prepared a “problem packet” for each of my research questions which includes all I know about each problem.

  1. I want to write an article about six Union soldiers of a Pennsylvania regiment who were captured by the Confederates at Weldon Railroad and taken to Salisbury Prison in North Carolina. Why do I find these six so interesting? They “went over to the Rebs” while in prison, as recorded in the diary of their leader, James Eberhardt.
    Confederate recruiters would come to the prison (Salisbury had conditions similar to Andersonville) and asked if anyone wanted to fight on their side. Six in James’s command volunteered. I want to know more about them. I have already pulled what there is from Fold3 and Ancestry on each.
  2. I have a client with an ancestor who fought for the Union Army by the name of John Cox. I am hoping to be able to sort out which of the six John Coxs from Indiana he could be.
  3. One night we will visit the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) Library.[4] I have a client with an ancestor who fought in the Revolutionary War and have pre-identified about 20 pages of documentation I would like to have copied. While our visit is short (just a couple of hours one evening), I have the call numbers at the ready! Thanks, Paula, DAR Registrar for the State of Washington, for walking me through the DAR online catalog!!
  4. For another friend, I am going to pull what I can find on two African American Revolutionary War soldiers, Barzillia Lew and Lemuel Haynes. DAR doesn’t seem to have anything. Ancestry has a pension file number on Lew.
  5. I have identified seven Union Soldiers who are buried at the Illinois Asylum for the Insane (Elgin); I would like to pull their pension records. Only two have been identified. This is another article I am considering.
  6. For a friend who is helping a prison inmate who is conducting his own family history research, I will pull two Civil War pension files.
  7. I would like to see what records there are on my dad, Harold Jacobson, who was in the Office of the Strategic Services, a precursor to the CIA during WWII. These records have recently come online.
  8. I looked for bankruptcy documents on the bank in Woden, Iowa, of my grandfather. It went under in 1931/2. In my prep work, I discovered his records are located at the NARA branch in St. Louis. This is important information; otherwise, I would have wasted time looking in DC for a record that was in Missouri.
  9. I wanted to locate Canal Zone employment records for a client and those too are in NARA-St. Louis.
  10. And, if I really have time, I want to pull the naturalization correspondence files (if any) on Emma (Anderson) Jacobson, my grandmother, who should have been gone through the naturalization process even though she was native born.  Emma “hit a window” where she lost her citizenship when she married the (at that time) Danish citizen, Chris Jacobson, even though she was born in Iowa in 1881. When I wrote to the Archives before, I asked for only her naturalization papers; I should have paid for the full search, including the correspondence file.[5]


I am excited to get acquainted with the classmates, instructors and the records themselves. The Archives seems a little intimidating to me and I want to get a better idea of how to find records that may answer some of my research questions that relate to the federal government.

I want to stress the importance of continuing education. Just because I received the credential of Certified Genealogist, the need for education does not stop, nor do I want it to. I hope to blog regularly about the experience which starts next week, but I know that our days (and some evenings) will be too densely packed to do so.

Happy hunting!


What I have done since the last posting: The prep for Gen-Fed was pretty intense. In addition, I completed a 50-page client report. I prepared for a presentation to the Falmouth (MA) Genealogical Society—a group I have presented to for the past 4 years. I thought I had the presentation just about done, and I just had to write up the syllabus—not true! It took another 20+ hours to get it presentation-worthy and then a couple more hours to write the syllabus. (FYI: I work between 80-100 hours on each presentation. By the time I am done with it, I can write the 4-page syllabus in about 4 hours.)

[1] Horydczk, Theodor, photographer. “National Archives under construction.” c. 1920-1950. stable URL:
[2] Genealogical Institute on Federal Records (Gen-Fed), Class was full in 8 minutes!
[3] National Archives and Records Administration (NARA),
[4] Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) Library,
[5] I suspect that Emma just thought that was a silly law and when she could vote in 1921, she did.  In the 1930s she was the Republican representative to her precinct, a strong supporter of prohibition and held offices in her local WCTU. I cannot imagine with that background that she didn’t vote and to vote she had to be a citizen….but, she probably wasn’t.