Researching at the National Archives
By Constance Potter
"There is properly no history, only biography." -- Ralph Waldo Emerson
One of the best places to start your research into records relating to service in World War I is the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), which holds the permanently valuable records of the Federal government. Many people rely solely on subscription-based websites such as Ancestry.com and Fold3, and free websites such as Family Search. While these websites provide access to useful records such as Federal census records, passenger arrival records, and many records relating to wars from the American Revolution to World War I, not all Federal, state, and local records have been digitized.
Conducting research at a large national institution such as NARA can seem daunting. The National Archives, with headquarters in the Washington D.C. area, has facilities across the country.
The National Archives in Washington, DC, holds census, immigration, public land, and Bureau of Indian Affairs records plus Army records from the American Revolution and up to approximately 1912, and Navy records up to December 1941.
The National Archives at College Park, MD, holds Army records beginning with World War 1 and Navy records after December 1941, as well as the records of the Department of State, Treasury Department, and Department of the Interior.
The National Personnel Records Center and National Archives in St. Louis, MO, holds official personnel records for both military and civilian employees.
For more information on these, and other NARA facilities, go to http://www.archives.gov and click on locations.
The Federal government did not establish a National Archives until 1934. Before that time, many of the records were held by the agencies, destroyed in fires and poor storage conditions, or just lost. It is surprising just how many records survived to be a part of the permanently valuable records of the National Archives.
Next article: Marine Corps Muster Rolls
Constance Potter is a retired reference archivist. She worked at the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, DC for more than 30 years.