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Government Documents and Genealogy

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Defending the Country

The military records discussed in Genealogical Research and Military Records, and Civil War Records and Genealogy are just the tip of the iceberg. The National Archives contains many more. The National Archives catalog Military Service Records: A Select Catalog of National Archives Microfilm Publications will give you ideas of records to check. One series of particular interest is the Registers of Enlistments in the United States Army, 1798-1914, micropublication M233. The men listed there were in the Regular Army, and this series may be the only information you will find on their service. The information varies but may include time and place of enlistment, age at enlistment, place of birth, civilian occupation, physical description, and unit or regiment to which assigned. There is no index to these files, but they are arranged chronologically in each register (which spans a number of years) and then alphabetically by the first letter of the surname. If you suspect that your ancestor served in the Regular Army, check the films for the appropriate time period.

On the High Seas

Immigrants usually arrived by ship, and may have come into any number of port cities: New York, Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Key West, Mobile, Charleston, Savannah, New Bedford, New Haven, Providence, San Francisco, Galveston, Seattle, Port Townsend (Wash.), Gulfport, Pascagoula (Miss.), and others.

Passenger arrival lists were originally created for customs, and they contain less information than those created as a result of immigration laws beginning in 1882. Because so many of the passenger lists are not indexed, to use them you need to know the ship and or date of arrival, often the very information you seek. Nonetheless, it is worthwhile to learn about these records. Even the early customs lists are useful because they usually give age, occupation, country of origin, and place of intended settlement. You may find the whole family traveling together, and they may be accompanied by other relatives or friends. Be careful, however, of accepting the information on these lists without further confirmation. On a ship sailing from Liverpool in 1858, the country of origin for all the passengers is listed as Great Britain when, in fact, they were from many European countries.

Records amassed after passage of immigration laws are more useful. The immigrants were asked many questions, such as whether they had been in the United States before, and if they were going to join a relative (and if so, the relative's name, address, and relationship). Their answers were duly noted on the immigration passenger lists. Later, the lists included a physical description and the name and address of the nearest relative in the immigrant's home country.

Consult Michael Tepper's American Passenger Arrival Records or Greenwood's Research in American Genealogy for good discussions of passenger lists. Also helpful is John P. Colletta's They Came in Ships.

More Taxes

Before there was a federal income tax, the federal government reached into your ancestors' pockets several times. The surviving tax lists contain little or no genealogical information, but they can give you a glimpse of the economic status of your ancestor. The first direct tax was a 1798 tax on real property and slaves. The National Archives has the Pennsylvania lists (United States Direct Tax of 1798: Tax Lists for the State of Pennsylvania, M372), which are organized in a complex geographic division. What a wonderful resource it is! For individuals on the lists, you'll find the size and construction material of their houses, the number of windows and lights in the houses, and how many stories they were. Acreages, outbuildings (such as a milk house or distillery), and other tantalizing facts are there. Sometimes the list gives adjoining landowners, enabling you to sort out men of the same name. The other surviving lists (Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Tennessee, and Vermont) are in various repositories and are well worth hunting for if you have ancestors in those areas at that time.

Easier to use are the Internal Revenue Assessment Lists for the Civil War Period. To pay for the Civil War, taxes were levied on various businesses and licenses. Carriages, yachts, billiard tables, and gold and silver plates were taxed as luxury items. In 1865, one of my collateral relatives was taxed $10 each for his licenses as a claims agent, insurance agent, real estate agent, and retail dealer. He was taxed $25 as a retail liquor dealer, and assessed $1.00 each for his carriage and two gold watches, and $4.00 for his piano. No genealogical information here, but you can get an idea of his economic status from the tax list. As with most records, it helps to read the background information on whatever taxes you are studying. An informative article is “Income Tax Records of the Civil War Years,” by Cynthia G. Fox. Originally published in Prologue, it is online at www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/1986/winter/civil-war-tax-records.html.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Genealogy © 2005 by Christine Rose and Kay Germain Ingalls. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.


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