Family research at the National Archives centers on the use of federal records. To start the process, we always advise researchers to first consider how their ancestors may have come into contact with the federal government during the course of their daily lives. If your great-grandparents purchased a homestead in Nebraska, they probably filed an application at a federal land office. If your Boston ancestor sailed on a whaling ship after 1796, he might have obtained a seaman’s protection certificate from a Customs official to prove his U.S. citizenship. If your ancestor volunteered for military service in the Civil War, he probably signed an enlistment form supplied by the War Department.
There are all kinds of activities and situations that could have resulted in a federal government paper trail, some of which might surprise new researchers. If you’ve had some experience in the field, we’d like to hear your ideas about citizen-government interactions over time, and the kinds of records that might have resulted.