Researching the Family Tree

October is American Archives Month! Today’s post comes from Elle Benak in the National Archives History Office.

Illustrated family record (Fraktur) found in Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land-Warrant Application File W4927, for Ezekiel Root, Connecticut, ca. 1800. (National Archives Identifier 300228)

The National Archives has many records that can assist researchers in their search to discover their family history. In fact, from the 1970s onward, genealogical records have been the largest resource that draws people to the archives.

Before 1970,  many historians did not view genealogists as serious researchers. The prevailing view was that only the wealthy traced their family histories to document their pedigrees.

At that time, historical research focused mostly on topics like military, political, or economic history.

But the late 1960s and early 1970s marked a shift in historical research. Topics pertaining to social history, like women’s and African American history, started to gain popularity.

Alex Haley speaking at the National Archives Conference on Federal Archives as Sources for Research on Afro-Americans, June 4, 1973. (National Archives Identifier 35810316)

Along with this shift came the rise in genealogical research.

In 1977, the television miniseries based on Alex Haley’s book Roots debuted. The story traces Kunta Kinte, an African teenager brought to America to be enslaved, and the generations of his family that followed. The program was extremely popular and sparked an interest in studying family history.

After the premier of Roots, the National Archives saw a 60-percent increase in researchers using genealogical records. The number of researcher cards issued increased by 400 percent, and inquiries about genealogical records went up by 300 percent.

Since that 1970s surge in interest in genealogical research, the National Archives has worked to find new ways to provide the public with more access to genealogical records.

The National Archives used to microfilm frequently requested documents to permit access while safeguarding the originals. We then made the microifilm copies available at our regional archives located around the country.

Since the shift to online research, the National Archives has been digitizing more and more records so researchers can access them from home.

Microfilm Research Room, 1972. (National Archives Identifier 35810076)

To help make even more records available online, the National Archives has entered into agreements with third parties such as

These agreements allows visitors to access Ancestry and for free while at any National Archives facility.

The National Archives has also been making more and more records available on our own website and in our online catalog.

With the increase in the amount of online primary source research, the National Archives has also taken steps to help genealogists take advantage of these resources.

For example, this week the National Archives is hosting a live, two-day virtual Genealogy Fair via webcast on YouTube.

This free program is being held on October 26 and 27 and offers advice on family history research in federal records.

Sessions include genealogical research guidance on how to use traditional and online resources. Session videos and handouts will be available during and after the event.

For the complete schedule and participation instructions, visit the Virtual Genealogy Fair web page.


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