Exploring the National Archives
National and Personal History in the National Archives: Beyond the Titanic
If your family arrived on this continent two centuries ago or as recently as the 1950s chances are they came here on a seagoing vessel. Most immigration stories won't match the drama of the Titanic, but who doesn't want to know exactly when their immigrant ancestors first set foot on American soil? In fact, finding a relative's name on a microfilmed passenger list is usually an exciting moment for even seasoned researchers. And yet, those who quit the search after looking at just books or microfilmed records may be cheating themselves out of the best experience of all.
Records in the National Archives are not limited to the colorful, famous, or notorious these records are about all of us. They offer fascinating documentation for the study of genealogy, history, economics, law, and a host of other topics.
The average family historian is well acquainted with census records, ship passenger lists, military records, and various other microfilm publications held by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). However, few have explored the wealth of textual material that is to be found in federal research centers that are in or near several major cities in the United States. Original papers, some of them dating back to 1685, are carefully stored in what the National Archives calls "NARA's Regional Records Services Facilities."
The paper records in the National Archives and its regional system constitute the raw essence of history millions of documents attesting to the building of this nation and to the everyday affairs of common individuals. Words uttered in passion, contempt, sorrow, pity, justice, and mercy have been written down and preserved. These words encapsulate the good times and the bad times, and are mementoes of Americana at its best: the story of who we are, what we stand for, and what we have achieved. Landmarks in history, as well as unremarkable events that shaped individual lives, have been documented and saved for us. It's all there: on paper, in leather-bound ledgers, on maps, in millions of drawings, and in rare photographs. The vast majority of these records have not been microfilmed or digitized nor is it likely that they will be in our lifetime.
New York City
Historians, writers, authors, family searchers, and, more recently, playwrights and filmmakers have pored over the original records of Titanic court files that are archived in 14 boxes at the NARA-Northeast Region in New York City. (According to admiralty law, steamship companies limited their liabilities by going to the federal courts.) "The last four or five of those boxes," says John Celardo, NARA archivist, "are bound claims, including those brought by the estates of those who perished, claims made by the injured, and property damage and loss claims against the shipping company after the tragic accident that took 1,500 lives. Titanic case files also include lifeboat photos, deck scenes, and Carpathia photos. Architectural drawings of the Titanic that are part of the exhibits have been frequently used by researchers, enthusiasts, and hobbyists for a decade."
The Titanic is just a tiny, though famous, part of the 63,000 cubic feet of archival holdings on Varick Street in New York City. Records there cover a wide range: besides those relating to the sinking of the Titanic, the Lusitania, and the Andrea Doria, there are records containing data on the social life and language of colonial America and records of admiralty case files documenting the slave trade. Other famous court cases at New York include a patent case involving the Wright brothers, complete with the brothers' signatures, and copyright cases involving Irving Berlin and Oscar Hammerstein. Among the millions of original naturalization records are those of Yul Brynner, Colin Powell's father, and former New York City Mayor Rudolph Guliani's grandfather. Dating from 1685 to the 1980s, the records were created or received by the federal courts and over 60 federal agencies in New Jersey, New York, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The New England customs records at NARA's Northeast Region in Boston offer a cornucopia of American history. Archival holdings include more than 25,000 cubic feet of material dating from 1789 to the 1970s, including textual documents, photographs, maps, and architectural drawings. The records were created or received by the federal courts and over 80 federal agencies in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island.
Before the film Amistad was released in 1997, few had heard of the ship Amistad. Handwritten official court records at Boston tell of the Amistad case, which decided the fate of a group of illegally captured Africans who rose up against Spanish slave traders in 1839 and subsequently won their freedom in an American court. While most cases have not captured the attention that the Amistad case now has, the case files at NARA's Boston facility detail the lives of thousands of people.
NARA's Pacific Region in San Francisco has more than 44,000 cubic feet of archival holdings dating from 1850 to the 1980s. The records were created or received by the federal courts and more than 100 federal agencies in northern California, Guam, Hawaii, Nevada (except Clark County), American Samoa, and the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands. High-interest cases at San Francisco include Chinese exclusion and immigration, the development of Pearl Harbor and mainland coastal fortifications, land use, mining, migrant labor camps, and tribal claims.
Holdings of NARA's Pacific Region also include the records of the Army Surgeon General's office. The Surgeon General's San Francisco office set up shelters and cared for thousands of residents after the devastating 1906 earthquake and fire. Photographs, medical reports, memoranda, telegrams, and other records held by the branch vividly document the disaster and its aftermath.
NARA's Southeast Region in Atlanta has about 70,000 cubic feet of archival holdings dating from 1716 to the 1980s. These records were created or received by the federal courts and over 100 federal agencies, and are unique evidence of the impact of the federal government on the lives of people in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee.
Among the subjects included are the Vice-Admiralty Court of the Province of South Carolina, the Civil War and Reconstruction, economic development, business, organized crime, inventions, censorship, the First and Second World Wars, and space exploration.
A fascinating group of paper records at Atlanta is that of the Tennessee Valley Authority. These records outline the relocation of families, from areas of the Tennessee River Valley, whose property was scheduled to be covered by rising reservoir waters as TVA built its dams. Before and during the relocation of these families, TVA documented the lifestyles of the people in great detail their family structure, the amenities in their lives, and even their reading habits.
NARA's Rocky Mountain Region in Denver has more than 35,000 cubic feet of archival holdings open to the public for research. These holdings date from about 1860 to the 1980s, and were created or received by the federal courts and over 75 federal agencies in Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming.
Located among the Bureau of Land Management records at the Denver region are tract books and abstract books that were maintained at local land offices to record all types of entries on the public domain: homesteads, cash sales, timber culture, bounty land warrants, and other records that document the opening of the West.
NARA's Great Lakes Region in Chicago has more than 64,000 cubic feet of historical records dating from 1800 to the 1980s, from federal courts and some 85 federal agencies in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin.
Court records at the Chicago branch offer a host of potential research uses, both general and specific, for the Great Lakes states. Thomas Edison, Jimmy Hoffa, Al Capone, Aaron Burr, Abraham Lincoln, Rutherford B. Hayes, and the Studebaker family are among individuals whose lives and careers are documented in the U.S. court files held by this facility. The millions of naturalization records there are a mirror image of the ethnic diversity of the area.
NARA's Central Plains Region in Kansas City has more than 35,000 cubic feet of archival holdings, dating from about 1821 to the 1980s. These archival holdings were created or received by the federal courts and over 70 federal agencies in Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota.
The judicial records at the Kansas City branch provide clear insights into Midwestern cowtowns and the legendary "Wild West." Court records give extensive information about law and order on the plains, with details seldom available elsewhere. Records of the Marine Inspection and Navigation at the Kansas City branch include licenses of pilots, mates, masters, and engineers of vessels on the Mississippi River, the Red River of the North, Lake Superior, and Yellowstone Lake.
Among subjects of local interest are records of American Indians native to the Northern Great Plains, as well as court cases involving fugitive slave Dred Scott, "Birdman of Alcatraz" Robert Stroud, automobile entrepreneur Henry Ford, and civil rights pioneer Oliver Brown, who challenged school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.
NARA's Mid-Atlantic Region in Philadelphia has more than 50,000 cubic feet of archival holdings created or received by the federal courts and over 50 federal agencies in Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia.
Holdings at Philadelphia provide a wealth of information on a variety of subjects. Dating from 1789 to 1996, the records provide details on vessel movements, registration, shipping, and other activities along the Atlantic Coast. Chinese-Americans can review case files for individual Chinese immigrants whose activities were closely monitored by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
NARA's Pacific Region in Laguna Niguel, Calif., has more than 28,000 cubic feet of archival holdings dating from about 1850 to the 1980s. These holdings were created or received by federal courts and over 50 federal agencies in Arizona, southern California, and Clark County, Nevada.
Among the subjects covered at Laguna Niguel are private land claims of the Spanish and Mexican periods in California history; the opening of the public domain to homestead settlement; the impact of the railroads on Native American life and culture; exclusion of Chinese immigrants; the maritime industry and its development; the buildup of coastal defenses and military bases since the Spanish-American War; the growth of naval bases and their impact on local communities; and immigration and naturalization.
Names of Hollywood celebrities appear regularly in naturalization and other court files at the National Archives-Laguna Niguel branch. The branch also has thousands of naturalization records for ordinary folk. From the earliest U.S. Territorial Court records to the records of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Laguna Niguel branch provides opportunities for original research in personal, local, state, and national history.
NARA's Southwest Region in Fort Worth has more than 66,000 cubic feet of archival holdings dating from 1806 to the 1980s.
Among the subjects covered are regional and national history from the early 1800s, with emphasis on westward expansion to the Southwest and the settlement of Native Americans (particularly Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks, and Seminoles) in Indian Territory; the Civil War; slavery; exclusion of Chinese immigrants; repatriation; segregation; the First and Second World Wars; treason; business; economic development; oil; and the space program.
The programs of the Bureau of Indian Affairs have had an impact on virtually every phase of tribal life, including education, health, land ownership, financial affairs, employment, and legal rights. The great numbers of Indian records at the National Archives-Fort Worth make it a center for the study of Native Americans. Court cases at Fort Worth include cases heard by an Arkansas judge who sentenced 96 men to the gallows, and cases from the court at New Orleans relating to pirates, such as Jean Laffite, and American icons, such as Andrew Jackson.
Other historic names and topics to be found at Fort Worth include outlaws Bonnie and Clyde, the Blue Angels, the Dalton Gang, Wyatt Earp, O. Henry, "Hanging Judge" Isaac Parker, Belle Starr, and the Texas City disaster.
NARA's Pacific Alaska Region in Seattle has more than 30,000 cubic feet of archival holdings, including records from federal courts and over 60 federal agencies in Idaho, Oregon, and Washington, dating from the 1850s to the 1980s. Records at the Seattle branch contain vivid accounts of customs agents pitted against opium smugglers and other unsavory characters at isolated, northern frontier ports.
NARA's Pacific Alaska Region in Anchorage has more than 9,000 cubic feet of archival holdings, including textual documents, photographs, maps, and architectural drawings dating from about 1867 to the present. The records were created or received by federal courts and over 30 federal agencies in Alaska. Anchorage is the newest NARA facility and holds numerous cases relating to fishing, land title, and other treaty rights of Indian tribes, and generally reflects the history of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, dating back to the territorial courts.
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