Monday, July 28, 2014

The Genealogists and the Feds: Using Government Documents in Genealogical Research

In June, I attended the Institute for Genealogy and Historical Research sponsored by Samford University. I took a course titled “Advanced Library Research: Law Libraries and Government Documents.” It was an opportunity to learn a new use for government documents. How could genealogists use them? In surprising ways, I discovered.

Why would genealogists want to use law resources or government documents? Depending on what is used, genealogists can find out a variety of information to fill in blanks about their ancestors’ lives. For example, did Great-Great-Great Uncle William have a property dispute with Great-Great-Great Uncle Robert and take him to court? The case might be listed in the Alabama Digest: Table of Cases, and that could be the proof of why those relatives don’t speak to each other today.

Government documents can give a researcher similar information, primarily, what interaction did the ancestor have with the government? Government documents record the actions of federal, state, and local governments and agencies. BPL’s Government Documents Department collects documents from each of these. This article gives examples of some federal resources which a genealogist may use there.

The Congressional Information Service (CIS) indexes records produced by Congress beginning in 1970. The volumes are Abstracts, Indexes, and Legislative Histories. Government Documents has the print volumes and microfiche until 2012.

The United States Congressional Serial Set (“the Serial Set”), contains documents and records numbered in sequence by each session of Congress. It began in 1817, and The American State Papers (1789-1838) are included. An example of a document found there that would involve names of persons is “Titanic Disaster: Hearings on Titanic disaster, to investigate collision of White Star liner with iceberg and rescue of passengers, officers and crew by steamer Carpathia.” The Serial Set is available through BPL’s database Congressional Publications.

One resource on microfilm and paper is the Congressional Record, which began as the Congressional Globe (1834- current). Congress is required to keep a record of each session, word for word. An ancestor might be given recognition in the CR, such as “140 Cong Rec S Capt. Ronald Arthur Route, (Introduced by) Mr. Shelby” or “160 Cong Rec S3466 Nevada’s French Legion of Honor Recipients, (Introduced by) Mr. Heller.” The CR from 1994 is available through the Government Printing Office web page,

United States Statutes at Large contains every law enacted by Congress, public and private. It also includes treaties, conventions, executive proclamations, and concurrent resolutions. A genealogist’s interest would be in the private laws which pertain to individuals. For example, “An Act For the relief of the estate of the late Captain D.H. Tribou, Chaplain, United States Navy. February 9, 1925…page 1560.”

Maps are another resource a genealogist might check. He/she might want to look at a battlefield map, for example, if a relative fought in a specific battle such as Gettysburg. The Department of the Interior, which supervises the national parks, produces excellent guides. The United States Geological Survey produces a variety of maps dealing with land and minerals. Such a map could give a genealogist an idea of what the area was like where an ancestor lived. Maps also may be found in the Serial Set, such as “Chart No. 1: Ice as Reported Near Titanic.”

Michelle Andrews
Government Documents Department
Central Library

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