Presentation Notes: 2005-2006

Unknown and Little-Used Resources at the National Archives

Presented by Walter Hickey - September 14, 2005

Notes by Jeanne M. Carley

What's at the National Archives besides census, naturalization, and ship passenger records? Walter Hickey, archives specialist at the regional archives in Waltham, Massachusetts, made his biennial visit to CCGS in September to talk about non-traditional records held at the National Archives. As usual, it was not only interesting, but included a bit of Irish humor.

At first Hickey discussed the technological changes in genealogical research, noting more records are online today through the subscription series of Ancestry, and Heritage Quest. The National Archives has contracted with Lockheed to digitize records and make these electronic records accessible to the public. However, he emphasized that researchers should not anticipate that all holdings will be digitized and put online. Basically, they are concentrating on digitizing future records, not old records. Moreover, the Genealogical Society of Utah (Mormons) is still photographing archival records which are available through their Family History Centers. (One copy of each film is kept at the regional centers of NARA).

As a result of the online records, he claims, people are not reading microfilms anymore. The Archives centers have lost 40% of their researchers - a drop from 16,000 to 10,000 in the past year. However, the records will still be there.

Records at National Archives
There are records relating to seamen: crew lists, shipping articles, seamen's identification, marine hospital records showing date of birth, and 19th century federal court records. These federal court records include seamen's wage cases, mistreatment and mutiny, and include depositions. He discovered many records of deceased seamen and their effects, which are like a probate record. (The effects of those men who had died at sea were returned to home courts and include interesting correspondence with the claimants - a name index is included). Also there are Custom House records with cargo and seamen listings in maritime communities.

In addition, scattered throughout the federal records are criminal, bankruptcy and patent cases. Some examples are slave trade cases, embezzling, carrying on liquor trade without a license and pension fraud. Sometimes, the papers are very detailed and give birth records. He suggested that if you know about any particular action, you can check the year and docket index. (There is a 20th century index and work is underway on a 19th century one).

Hickey spoke about newspapers as a valuable source for listing court petitions and other items. He gave an example of an news account of the Irish riots in Lowell. These are "textual" records or actual papers (not microfilmed). Since politicians used the "spoils system" prior to the Civil Service, federal jobs were given to friends or those who petitioned the politicians for positions. And there were many to be had. Among the records are many letters requesting jobs from the presidency of John Adams on down, and letters of appointments.

Another little-known source are letters to the Secretary of War. There are indexes of letters received and responses sent with the subject covered or the name of the person involved. An index is included in each volume during the 1800's up to 1870. He cited examples of Civil War soldiers or their families involved in these letters. "You may find nothing, but if you make a hit, you will have the biggest smile around," he added.

World War I Draft Cards have been available for about 10 years, also through These records supplied by draft-eligible men give important information on their birth and parents, etc. World War II Draft Cards begin in 1940 with the first registration for men 18-20 years old. In 1942, Selective Service had a 4th registration of men born after April 18, 1877 (ages 45-65) for civilian duty, not draft. They needed to know the extent of the manpower pool for the civilian war effort. They wanted skilled tradesmen who would be available for the war defense work. These include all of the New England states except for Maine. The cards are arranged alphabetically for easy reference. In Connecticut, the cards are being filmed.

Community Histories
For those persons writing town histories, certain records contain information on civil works projects by the US Corps of Engineers. When there were hurricane devastations in New England, the Corps of Engineers was involved in public works projects such as dams. Photographic records exist to show these projects.

Hickey stressed that records do not exist in a vacuum. They also exist in a community and gave examples of condemnation files of the Real Property Disposal Boards. Often land owned by people was taken for highways, railways, etc., by eminent domain, a process recorded in the dockets. He also cited lifesaving stations built up and down the coast of the US as part of community history.

Hickey explained that these records are not always easy to get because they haven't been indexed, but hopefully they will be online in the future on the NARA website.

See the Presentation Notes Index for summaries of other presentations given at the Society's monthly meetings.