19th and Early 20th Century Federal Employees

Researching the career of a 19th or early 20th century federal employee requires delving into specialized records. Twenty-three years ago my article, “Documenting the Career of Federal Employees” was published in NARA’s Prologue magazine. The advice given then is still relevant today. There are still three basic steps in this research process. What has changed is online access to publications, finding aids, and–to some extent–records.

Step 1: Determine When, Where, and By Whom Employed. The Official Register of the United States is still the basic resource for this task. You can read more about it in John P. Deeben’s 2004 article. Fortunately, many of them are now online on Hathitrust.org. This important step enables the researcher to identify the federal agency or agencies that employed the ancestor. Knowing the agency means the researcher can then identify the appropriate Record Group(s) of interest in the National Archives and Records Administration.

Step 2: Identify Records Series that Might Provide Information. In the days before digital access, researchers had to consult inventories, preliminary inventories, and other finding aids onsite at the National Archives, or find them in a library, or obtain copies of them to peruse at home. Now, nearly every record series for every Record Group can be found in NARA’s online Catalog. Although using the Catalog can be daunting, it is accessible from home, and at your convenience.

Step 3: Examine Relevant Records. In most cases, the researcher will have to examine these records onsite at the NARA facility that holds the records. However, online access is slowly increasing through (1) enhanced description and/or (2) digital images.

  • Enhanced Description provides detailed information to allow the researcher to decide whether the records will be useful. For example, each of the 22 files in the series, Records Relating to the Protection of Mail Transport by Armed Guards, 1926-1932 indicates which postmasters and post offices (primarily larger cities) are included in the series. Here is the direct link to the Indiana file as an example. The records can then be perused onsite in the National Archives Building, or specific records can be requested by mail. If your ancestor was the postmaster or a postal employee of that post office, the records will provide insight into some of the work processes involved at that post office.

 

Learning more about an ancestor’s federal career will add biographical details to incorporate into their life story. You’ll get to know that person better.

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Spanish-American War Nurses

It’s become a little bit easier to research Spanish-American War nurses. The National Archives Catalog now identifies 761 women for whom there are correspondence files, primarily for those who wanted to obtain government benefits based on their service. These files are in the series, “Correspondence Relating to the Service of Spanish-American War Contract Nurses, 1898-1939,” which is in Record Group 112, Records of the Office of the Surgeon General (Army). The files themselves are not online, but copies can be requested from archives1reference@nara.gov.

To search for a specific person in the Catalog, you have two options. One option is to click on the catalog link that says “761 file unit(s) described in the catalog.” The files are in alphabetical order.

Here are the first four files:Screen Shot 2017-06-20 at 6.48.44 PM.png

The second option is to click on the button that says “Search within this series” THEN replace the *.* in the search bar with the surname of interest. Then click on the magnifying glass icon to perform the search. (Yes, that is not an intuitive process.)

Additional records about Spanish-American War nurses in RG 112 include “Personal Data Cards of Spanish-American War Contract Nurses, 1898-1939” (NARA staff has a list of nurses included in that series) and “Registers of Service of Spanish-American War Contract Nurses, 1898-1900.”

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.