This post is inspired, by and large, by my experience working at the National Archives as a federal employee and as a reference archivist who works with genealogists. I find that in working with genealogists I’m often faced with the same types of questions or issues related to records. I thought I would use my website to broach these larger issues.
For the most part, as it relates to the day-to-day activities, the bulk of our researchers and research requests come from professional and amateur genealogists. They come to search our records in the hopes of shedding light on their family history. We have two main resources at our disposal: naturalization records and a subscription to Ancestry.com. I’ve talked more in depth about the Naturalization process and the records involved in a previous post so I won’t rehash it all here. With Ancestry.com, we offer genealogists a chance to utilize our institutional membership to look at all of their records. Anyone who has a government-issued photo ID and screened by our guard for security purposes can access Ancestry on any of our public access computers. There are, however, some limitations to our membership meaning you can’t save records to our account or interact with other individuals on Ancestry.
For months, I had been fielding questions about genealogy and the records of the federal government. But, what immediately compelled me to write this post was one of our genealogy workshops on February 20th. The speaker, Allen McClain, was explaining various strategies in his presentation “Beginning Genealogy.” During the course of his presentation, he answered a question raised by a participant about the U.S. Federal Census. In answering, he told the person that you have to think of the U.S. Federal Census, which is conducted every 10 years, as a one day snapshot of your ancestor’s life. Then he asked participants to think about the things they’ve done in 10 years time. When you think of it in those terms, the federal census only tells a fraction of the story.
For example, at the present moment, I’m 28 years old. If I go back ten years, I was living with my parents. In that 10 year time frame, I moved away to college, graduated, resided in my college town for a year, then moved to South Carolina, attended graduate school, graduated, then moved to Death Valley for a job, moved back to South Carolina, and then moved to Philadelphia for a job. That’s a LOT in 10 years. And, in all of that moving, I don’t remember being asked by a census taker when I was 18 or 28 about my life. So, I’m pretty sure my great-great-great-grandkids will have a fun time tracking me down! While living with my parents, I’m pretty sure either my mother or my father answered questions related to the census.
That my readers is the crux of the matter when dealing with some genealogists, usually the ones new to the search. The Federal Census only tells a fraction of the story. In a person’s day to day life, they mostly interacted with their city, county, or state government. It’s true today and it’s true for your ancestors, pre-social media of course. For the most part, unless you were involved in a federal court case or a federal employee, the federal government doesn’t really have that much of a record of you. Well, I take that back…there’s the IRS but even those records are destroyed after a certain number of years. The Federal Census can give you a very broad overview of someone’s life…where they lived, who they lived with, what they do for a living but that’s about it. It’s up to you, the genealogist or family historian, to piece together the full story.