Gen-Fed Tales of Discovery, 2016

Malissa Ruffner, Director of Gen-Fed, the unique week-long course on using federal records in the National Archives for genealogical research, recently posted a list of “Tales of Discovery” by members of the Gen-Fed Class of 2016. The discoveries they made were in original paper records that are not online and not on microfilm. Their findings broke through brick walls, shattered erroneous conclusions made by others, and enriched their understanding of their ancestors’ lives and times. Fabulous stuff.

There’s no substitute for going beyond the “easy” online pickings to the harder-to-find or harder-to-access offline material.

There’s not enough time in the day, or in one’s life, to research everything, so one strategy is to focus on those ancestors or family groups that are most dear to you, and learn as much as you can about them. And then publish–or your work will perish.

Women in the Civil War

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When we think of the Civil War, the image that likely immediately springs to mind is that of thousands of men in uniform clashing in epic battles, such as at Gettysburg.

Forgotten are the thousands of women who performed tedious, dirty, inglorious tasks–hospital matrons, hospital nurses, laundresses, cooks, and others. They were there, too, on both sides of the conflict.

Documenting their presence, identity, and contributions, is infuriatingly difficult, however, due to the paucity of records that were kept–or retained. A new article,
“Union Army Laundresses,” NGS Magazine, Vol. 42, No. 3 (July-Sept. 2016): 33-37, breaks new ground by outlining research strategies for documenting the service of hospital laundresses, fort and post laundresses, and camp laundresses.

Most of these women likely came from the poorer end of the economic spectrum. They included African-Americans as well as Caucasians. Their efforts deserved to be better remembered, and I hope this article will encourage research.

95%: Describing the National Archives’ Holdings

From the blog of David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States (AOTUS).

AOTUS

The National Archives Catalog has reached a milestone: we now have 95% of our holdings completely described at the series level in our online catalog. This is a monumental achievement. Why? Because the National Archives holds over 13 billion pages of records, and we are adding hundreds of millions of pages to that total every year.

Describing our records in the online Catalog means that the information for all of those holdings is in one central place for researchers anywhere to search and browse, and is vital to our strategic goal to Make Access Happen. Description enables us to provide the archival context of records as they are shared and re-used by researchers, citizen developers, and the public.

We’ve come a long way since our first online catalog was released in 2001. By 2003, only 19% of our holdings were described online for the public to view. This means…

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Those “Boring” Administrative Files….

Most novice genealogists understandably focus on finding vital records of birth, marriage, and death. More experienced researchers know that understanding an ancestor’s full life – as well as finding ways around “brick wall” problems – comes from delving into a wide range of records created by government record keepers at all levels of our federalist structure.

The “wide range of records” includes those “boring” administrative files, which, it often turns out, are not so boring after all. My recent article – “Special Examiners: Records of the Bureau of Pensions’ Efforts to Combat Waste, Fraud, and Abuse, 1862–1933” – in Volume 8 of the Federal History Journal seeks to bring greater appreciation to less-well known records in Record Group 15, Records of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The Weather Bureau and Genealogy

As the National Capital region continues to dig out from two feet (or thereabouts) of snow, it’s a good time to reflect on the genealogical uses of Record Group 27, Records of the Weather Bureau.

Our farm family ancestors kept close watch of the weather and it certainly affected their economic well-being much more than it does us city dwellers. Today, only 2% of the U.S. population are farm families; in 1790, they comprised at least 90%.

While the Weather Bureau was not established until 1890, the federal government’s interest in collecting weather information dates back to the 1810s, when army hospital, post, and regimental surgeons were directed to keep diaries of the weather. These duties were transferred in 1870 to officers reporting to the Chief Signal Officer. Meanwhile, from 1847 to 1870, the Smithsonian Institution also collected data from voluntary observers throughout the country. All of these observations are available on National Archives Microfilm Publication T907, Climatological Records of the Weather Bureau, 1819-1892 (562 rolls), which is not online.

This can be useful background information that puts flesh on the bones of those ancestors. What was the weather like on the day your ancestor was born? Married? Died? Or at some other point his or her life? You may not find an answer for your precise location, but a nearby one might be close enough. One of my grandfathers was born in November 1888, but his birth was not recorded until the spring of 1889. One suspects weather had something to do with it – even though the winter of 1888-89 was not as epic as that of January-March 1888.

My retired colleagues, Constance Potter and Kenneth Heger, used to jointly give a lecture called “Stormy Weather” that was all about the genealogical uses of weather information from federal records. Connie presents some of that information in De Smet, Dakota Territory, Little Town in the National Archives, Part 2.

The year 1816 was known as “1800 and Froze to Death” (as well as “The Year without any Summer” and other appellations). It was a year when there was frost or snow in nearly every month, and farmers planted crops two and three times only to see them die. Many farm families from the northern United States moved west in 1817 in hopes of a better future.

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina displaced thousands from New Orleans, Louisiana, with many never to return.

Weather matters.

In addition to T907, other useful federal records include:

Nonfederal sources of information include articles in newspapers in the area where your ancestors lived. For example, the Columbus, Ohio, Statesman of 15 February 1842 reprinted a news item from the Cleveland Herald that described a “Terrible Tornado” in Mayfield, Cuyahoga County, Ohio, and Kirtland, Lake County, Ohio, that caused considerable damage. More than 30 people are mentioned, along with their losses (“house unroofed,” “barn unroofed,” “barn demolished,” etc.).

Image: Flooding from Hurricane Katrina, 13 September 2005. NAID 7961819, from Record Group 48, Records of the Office of the Secretary of the Interior.

War Labor Policies Board, 1918-1919

It seemed fitting to start the “Anti-Obscurant” series at the beginning….

Record Group 1, Records of the War Labor Policies Board, 1918-19, is about as obscure as one can get. This temporary World War I agency has the distinction of being Record Group 1 because its records were the first records received by the National Archives in the mid-1930s. The records measure a mere 12 cubic feet, and there are only 7 record series.

The Board was established by the Secretary of Labor on 13 May 1918. It was composed of representatives of the Labor, War, Navy, and Agriculture Departments; the War Industries Board; the U.S. Shipping Board; the Emergency Fleet Corporation; the Railroad, Food, and Fuel Administrations; and the Committee on Public Information. It was abolished in March 1919.

The Board formulated uniform policies for war labor administration, and promoted better housing conditions for war workers. After the Armistice, it considered proposals for canceling government contracts and for demobilization, and made studies of domestic and foreign wartime labor conditions and of labor policies relating to immediate postwar conditions in the United States.

After reading through the descriptions of the agency’s record series, it’s fairly clear that the Board’s records would most interest labor historians, World War I historians, and persons researching Chairman Felix Frankfurter, Executive Secretary George L. Bell, business adviser Herbert F. Perkins, economic expert Walton H. Hamilton, and staff member Helen Bary, who created two of the series.

Record Group 1 is clearly not a useful record group for genealogists—unless your ancestor was involved with the Board, in which case you may learn more than you wanted about the Board’s concerns during its 10-month existence.

This link will take you to description of the records in NARA’s online catalog.

Obscure people and records

Barbara Vines Little, editor of the Magazine of Virginia Genealogy, introduces the current issue (Vol. 53, No. 4, November 2015) with her message, “On the Trail of the Obscure.” She says that “Readers will find this issue replete with the types of records best suited to following the tracks of people who often leave little trace of their presence in a given area.” For researchers seeking hard-to-locate individuals from the late 1700s, the various rent rolls, store ledgers, personal property tax lists, and military clothing accounts published therein may indeed provide vital clues and links.

Obscurity works both ways. Not only do the records contain obscure individuals, the records themselves are obscure–records that the average genealogist with Virginia roots is unlikely to know about. The Virginia Genealogical Society serves the genealogical community well in making unusual records more accessible through its publications.

“Not well known” is one of several definitions of “obscure.” A related word is “obscurant.” As a noun, it’s a person who strives to prevent the increase and spread of knowledge, or, a person who obscures. As an adjective, it means tending to make obscure.

There are so many obscure records in the National Archives that are worthy of greater attention by researchers. Thus, I am launching a periodic series of Anti-Obscurant posts to shed light on some of the many obscure Federal records held by the National Archives and Records Administration. It should be educational for us all.