Sleuthing for Treasures at the National Archives

by Bonnie Lynn Cary

   It was a crisp winter day in 1991 and I was filled with nervous excitement, for this was my very first research trip to the National Archives in Washington, D.C. That day would be the start of an exciting and thrilling “treasure hunt.” On entering the researcher’s entrance on Pennsylvania Avenue, I struck up a conversion with a fellow genealogist.  She casually asked if I had a War of 1812 soldier. I replied, “Yes I do, but I already have his service and pension records. I ordered them by mail from the Archives.” She replied, “Oh, you will want to look at the original record today. I’ll show you how.” At first, I thought to protest, since I already had the records. After all, what did I need to look at them for? Then I decided that this was my first trip and if someone wanted to help show me the ropes, then I needed to be open to the experience. Wow! Am I forever glad that I was! She showed me how to fill out the request for military records and where the drop box was located. A few hours later, she showed me how to get to Room 203, the textual records reading room. Little did I know what a wonderful surprise was awaiting me!

    I went to the counter and requested the 1812 pension record for my great-great grandfather, Samuel Cary of Nottoway County, Virginia, a private in Capt. Charles Betts’ Company. I sat down at the desk, opened the folder and starting turning the pages. Suddenly, I stopped short! I couldn’t believe what I was looking at. I was reading and touching a torn-out page from my ancestor Samuel Cary’s family Bible! To actually hold this fragile document with its edges torn and crumbling and to think that family members before me had done the same produced an overwhelming feeling. It somehow brought my ancestors much closer to me. I had known there was a family Bible page in this pension, since I had received the information by mail, but what was such a surprise was that there was birth and death information written on the backside of the original. I only had a copy of the marriage page! If I had not listened to some very good advice, I would never have known there was additional information on that family Bible page which the staff had omitted when they had made copies for me.

      Needless to say, that experience started my love for research at the National Archives. Yes, the Archives is a large, intimidating place, but it is manageable and the treasures hidden and buried within its walls are well worth the effort to find them. After all, isn’t that what we are: genealogical detectives on a quest to unearth our ancestors and the documents that tell us about them?

     One of the most invaluable tools you can use for the National Archives are the genealogy microfilm catalogs. The cost is $3.50 per catalog, or you can search them at no cost on the NARA web site. Available microfilm catalogs include American Indians, Black Studies, Census 1790-1890, 1900, 1910, 1920, & 1930, Diplomatic Records, Federal Court Records, Genealogical & Biographical Research, Immigrant & Passenger Arrivals, and Military Service Records. All catalogs provide a very good all-around overview of the holdings available along with a brief description of what each record is about. I use them when developing my research log before a trip. That way I have a general idea of what records I would like to locate when I arrive. By browsing through these books at home and reading what the record is about, it helps take my research in directions that I might not normally think about looking. My favorite catalog of all is the Military Service Records catalog. If you only buy one catalog, that is the one I recommend. Not only does it cover all conflicts from the Revolution through World War I, but also other lesser known record collections such as Confederate prisoners of war; Confederate soldiers who died in federal prisons & military hospitals 1861-1865; correspondence relating to Indian affairs; military pensions & fortifications 1791-1797; and U.S. Naval Academy registers of delinquencies 1846-1850 and 1853-1882.

      Other helpful finding aids are the 160 color-coded one-page guides relating to numerous microfilm publications. These include the following topics: African Americans, Asian Americans, Census, Citizenship, Civilian Federal Employees, District of Columbia, Early Congressional Private Claims, Immigration, Lands, Military, Native Americans and the 1885 State & Territorial Censuses. These guides are available free at the National Archives in D.C., or you can access the entire 160-page collection on line at the Mount Vernon Genealogical Society. They are quite helpful in giving a brief overview of the records, as well as in listing some of the individual microfilm publications and a description of each particular film.

     My enthusiasm and love of the National Archives after almost eighteen years of research there has not waned. With each visit, I am filled with the anticipation of the endless possibilities of finding a wonderful “national treasure” associated with my ancestor, be it discovering an additional generation, putting meat on a particular ancestor’s bones, or discovering how he or she fit into the historical context. I’ve had the honor and the privilege to view some of the most touching and wonderful treasures that are housed in the National Archives. For example, newspaper clippings relate the story of a Union soldier, Hiram H. Robinson, a private of Co. H., 57th Pennsylvania Infantry, on night watch in Washington, D.C., the night that President Abraham Lincoln was shot. Pvt. Robinson was selected for the honor guard that accompanied his body back home to Illinois for burial. I’ve also read the original letters of an Andersonville prisoner of war, Samuel A. Lindley, a private of Co. B, 9th Minnesota Infantry, who wrote home to his parents Lewis and Sylvia Lindley before his untimely death in Andersonville. The Cherokee application papers of Rebecca T. Angel, of Ogeechee, Oklahoma Indian Territory, show a four-generation genealogy of her family, while the wonderful passport record for Daniel Ademar Gindrat of Middlesex County, Massachusetts, describe of his birth in Switzerland, his naturalization as a U.S. citizen, and his job at the Waltham Watch Company that required his travel abroad to England, France & Switzerland.

      The National Archives is filled with boundless “national treasures” and they tell our ancestors’ stories. So put on your sleuthing cap, grab your notes and magnifying glass, and go for the “treasure hunt” of your life! You may just strike it rich with your own personal “gem.”

      This year is the 75th anniversary of the opening of the National Archives and it has extended a special invitation to NARA researchers to help with this celebration. You can submit your own story about a favorite document or surprising find, thank a staff member who was especially helpful, or share details of your most exciting discovery.

Bonnie Cary is a professional genealogist, a lecturer on genealogical research in the Tidewater, Virginia area, a member of the National Genealogical Society, Tidewater Genealogical Society, Virginia Beach Genealogical Society and the Tidewater Genealogical Society’s trip coordinator running bus trips to the D.A.R. Library, Library of Congress and National Archives in Washington, D.C.


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