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.


9 comments on “One Day at the National Archives?

  1. Wow, Jill, thank you! This is so helpful.

  2. Really good Jill, I am reblogging it so others can gain some of your tips. Thank you

    • Jill Morelli says:

      Please do not reblog without discussing with me first. You have undoubtedly seen my longer request for you not to do this. Attribution does not equal permission, especially when you use the same title and cut and paste. It’s called something else.

      • Jill, I removed it as soon as I saw your message. No need to say anything else.

      • Jill Morelli says:

        Thanks! And I appreciate you doing this. In the future, feel free to contact me and we can discuss how you could include the post–I was most concerned about the use of my title as your title. I am sure we can come to an agreement. Have a great day.

  3. Laurie says:

    Wow! What a valuable post! I dream of a trip to the National Archives some day. When I go it will likely be only a one day visit. Thanks for sharing these valuable tips to pack the most in.

  4. Liz Ross says:

    i find the clear heavier plastic envelope (sold by container store – feb 2018) to be wonderful, and it was admired by security (!). It will hold phone, phone cord, mouse, pencil, phone, extra batteries & splitter, zip-lock baggies are way too floppy for my taste, and anything must be see-through. My computer cord doesn’t fit, but that gives me 3 things to hold onto, vs. 12. My wallet gets condensed into something that goes into a pants pocket.
    also – there is a washroom out the research room door. I take my computer (surface), phone and leave the rest.

    you cannot take in the case/cover for your computer
    You will need your researcher card repeatedly thorugh the day. I put it on a hang tag neckcord
    the lockers are at the end of a hallway and an elevator ride from the research room.
    you will need a quarter for the locker
    I asked, and was told that I could leave a suitcase (on the plane size) in the large lockers during the day so I could research on the way out of town.
    the fastest lunch is in the building – bring or buy, but lovely options abound in the area, and you probably need the walk and fresh air.

    there is one outlet per desk — I go with a fully charged computer and phone.

  5. […] If you only have one or two days, and are interested in the usual military records, check out Jill Morelli’s blog for a rundown of her day at the […]

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