Of all the materials and sources available to the genealogist, by far the most important are primary records or "original" records. These are the records found in archives, courthouses, town halls, old churches - even in the attic.
The value of primary records is that they are contemporary with the event which they record. Thus they are more likely to be accurate than a record made some time later from memory.
The National Archives and Records Administration (Washington, DC, 20408) is the repository for the U.S. government. It preserves and makes available valuable federal records from all three branches of government. The records in the custody of the National Archives are housed in the National Archives building in Washington, DC, (bounded by Pennsylvania and Constitution Avenues and 7th and 9th Streets, N.W.), in the Washington National Records Center in Suitland, MD, and in eleven archives branches around the country.
One of the most valuable records for the genealogist is the federal census. The United States government has conducted a census of each state and territory every ten years since 1790 and, in some places, other years. The federal census records from 1790 through 1840 contain little genealogical information. Only the head of household is given by name; all others in the family are counted only in specific age groups by sex. These records, though, can be helpful, for they tell you the number of children in the family and their approximate ages (remember that not all in the household are necessarily family members). They also can help you find where your family lived and pinpoint your research.
The 1850 census was the first to include the name of each person in a household, including age, sex, color, occupation, and birth place (state, territory or foreign country) and value of real estate and personal property (usually just for the head of the household). In 1870 the census gave the month of birth if born during the year, the month of marriage if married within the year, and whether the father or mother of each individual was foreign born. The 1880 census added two valuable pieces of information: the relationship of each person to the head of the household and the birthplace of the father and mother of each person. The 1890 census was largely destroyed by fire in 1921 and only fragments of it are available for research.
The 1900 and 1910 censuses are the most helpful available. The 1900 census included the month and year of birth of each individual, as well as the number of years married for each couple, the number of children the woman had borne and the number living in 1900. The census indicated whether a family rented or owned its own residence, whether it was a home or a farm and whether it was mortgaged. For foreign born, the year of immigration was given and whether naturalized or first papers filed. The 1910 census has similar information and includes whether it was a first marriage or, if not, what number, language spoken, employment status, and whether served in the Union or Confederate army or navy.
Because of the confidential nature of census records, Congress determines when each census may be released. Current law requires that census information remain confidential for 72 years. The 1920 census, available in 1992, is the last to have been indexed.
Published indexes are available for all U.S. censuses from 1790 through 1850. Computerized indexes of the 1860 census for most states are available or should shortly be available for most states.
The 1790 census - those parts available - was published by the government in the early 1900s and has since been privately reprinted. Published census schedules for 1790 are for Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Vermont.
The schedules for the remaining states - Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, New Jersey, Tennessee and Virginia - were burned during the War of 1812. Substitute schedules, made from names in state censuses or tax lists, have been published for many of the missing states. These printed 1790 schedules are available in most larger libraries.
The 1880, 1900, most of the 1910, and the 1920 censuses have "soundex" indexes on microfilm. The soundex is a coded surname index based on the way a surname sounds rather than how it is spelled. The 1880 soundex includes only those households with a child 10 or younger.
In using a census index, be certain that you have looked for your surname in all of its possible spelling variations. Remember also that indexes, including those produced by a computer, are subject to human error. Every genealogist has a horror story about printed census indexes; studies show the error rate to be high because of improper keypunching or misreading of the original records. So if you don't find your ancestor in an index it doesn't necessarily mean that he cannot be found in the census. You may often have to search every name in a given county before you find him or her.
The National Archives has original or microfilm copies of all the federal census schedules that have been made available to the public. These can be used in the microfilm reading room in the National Archives or at one of the eleven branches. If you are searching in Washington, enter the Pennsylvania Avenue side of the building. You will need to sign in and out and notebooks or brief cases are subject to search. The microfilm reading room is located on the fourth floor. While a researcher's identification card is necessary for certain research in the National Archives, you don't need one to use this room. In any case ID cards are available upon request.
Census records cannot always be relied on as accurate. Persons giving the information may not have known the exact ages or places of birth of each member of the household. And there's always been vanity about ages - I've noted cases where people aged only five years in the ten years between the censuses! Census takers spelled what they heard and many of them spelled badly. And apparently they weren't hired because of their penmanship. Even so, the family listing in a census gives you valuable information and provides clues for further research.
The National Archives has military service records beginning with the Revolutionary War. Two types of records are of particular interest to the genealogist: the compiled service record and the pension application record.
Compiled military service records are of limited genealogical value. They serve primarily to prove military service by your ancestor. For the most part, they consist of the serviceman's rank, military unit, dates of service, payroll and muster rolls, discharge, desertion or death. A few of the later war records include some personal information such as age, birthplace and physical description.
Microfilm indexes of military service records are available for the following periods: Revolution, 1775-1783; post-Revolution, 1784-1811; War of 1812, 1812- 1815; Indian Wars, 1817-1858; Mexican War, 1846-1848; Civil War, Union troops, 1861-1865; Civil War, Confederate troops, 1861-1865; Spanish-American War, 1898-1899; and the Philippine Insurrection, 1899-1902. Records from World War I will likely be released in a few years.
Pension application records are the most important military records for genealogists. The National Archives has pension applications and payment records for veterans, widows and other heirs. They are based on service in the U.S. armed forces between 1775 and 1916, but not duty in the service of the Confederate States.
Genealogical information in these files varies. In the file for one of my ancestors was an "autograph letter" recounting his experiences during the Revolution as well as statements signed by John Hancock attesting to his service in Maine, along with notarized information relating to his marriage and the birth of his children. Others may contain only depositions relating to the applicant's service, his age, birthplace and place of residence. Widow's applications often have more material, for they had to furnish the date and place of the marriage, the date and place of her husband's death, her maiden name, age, residence and the names and ages of her children.
The National Genealogical Society compiled and published an alphabetical name index of the Revolutionary War pension applications files and is working on one for the War of 1812.
To secure photocopies of military or pension records by mail, write the National Archives Reference Service Branch (NNIR) and ask for copies of its military request order forms. Information on the form must be as complete as possible for an effective search to be made. At a minimum, you must know the state from which he served and the period when he served. There is a charge for this service.
Some state archives or libraries have additional military records - or copies of the federal records - so you will want to check there. Iowa, for instance, has an excellent collection gathered as a part of a WPA project in the 1930s and maintained by military authorities. Some states also issued pensions; inquiries about these should be directed to the state where the veteran lived after the war.
Passenger Arrival Records/Federal Land Records:
The Archives and its branches have passenger arrival records beginning in 1820 (they were not required before that date). To request a search of the passenger arrival records, write the Reference Service Branch (NNIR) and request forms for ordering passenger arrival records. The important information you will need includes approximate date of arrival of your ancestor, port of entry, and - if possible - the name of the ship. There is a charge for this service.
If your ancestor lived in one of the "public land" states (30 states, primarily from Ohio west) and bought land directly from the federal government, you can request a search of the National Archives Records. You will need to furnish your ancestor's full name, the state in which he or she acquired land, whether the land was acquired before or after 1908, and, if possible, the legal description of the land by section, township and range. If you don't have a legal description, describe its location as precisely as you can. There is a fee for this service and it may take several weeks to process your order.