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Navigating the National Archives
10/1/2002
A professional genealogist takes you step-by-step through the nation's storehouse of records in Washington, DC.
Every good genealogy search begins at home. But when you've tapped all the local, family and regional sources you can, it's time to take your research to the next level. After all, your ancestors were more than just farmers, small-town families or big-city immigrants. They were also residents of the United States, and whether they were citizens or aliens, soldiers or homesteaders, the US government kept tabs on them. Where will you find those records today? The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) houses most of them in its Archives I building located in Washington, DC.

There you'll find US censuses, military pensions and service records, passenger arrival records, homestead records, military headstone applications, bounty land warrants, Bureau of Indian Affairs records, Freedmen's Bureau records, Court of Claims files, border crossing records and many others. While the records seem endless, however, not everything ever created by the federal government is kept there. The National Archives of the United States wasn't established until 1934, and the building at 700 Pennsylvania Ave. NW opened in 1935. Many US records were created long before there was a National Archives, and some of them no longer exist. Still, NARA houses many federal documents dating to the 18th century. More records continue to be turned over to NARA all the time. Others are stored at NARA's 13 regional facilities, as well as at the Archives II building in College Park, Md., the Veterans Administration, presidential libraries and other US repositories. (Look for details and links to these repositories at <www.archives.gov>.) As professional genealogy researchers, my husband and I travel to Washington, DC, to research at the National Archives for many weeks each year. With its thousands of records and complex research system, it may seem like a labyrinth to the first-time visitor. I'll take you through all the steps of a genealogy researcher at the archives, and by the time we're done, you'll feel like an old pro — ready to visit the nation's capital and confidently conquer the next level of your research.

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