Government Documents and Genealogy

Learn which government documents can be useful in your genealogical research.
Table of contents

In this article, you will find:

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Government Documents and Genealogy

Among the many federal-land records are the homestead records. The Homestead Act of 1862 was instrumental in settling the West. Many of our ancestors submitted papers and fulfilled the requirements to claim the allotted 160 acres. Any citizen (or person who had filed papers to become a citizen) over the age of 21 could claim 160 acres of unoccupied, available federal land. The individual had to live on the land for five years while cultivating it and building a home. Women, as well as men, were homesteaders, so don't overlook your female ancestors.

Tree Tips

There were other acts, earlier and later, pertaining to acquisition by private individuals of federal land. There are case files for Cash Entry Sales, Preemption Sales, Timber Culture, Desert Land, and others, all in Record Group 49 at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. These records do not usually contain as much personal information but, nonetheless, are worthwhile.

The case files for the homestead lands vary, but nearly all have valuable genealogical information, such as the age and address of the person applying for the land, family members, descriptions of the land, house, crops, and testimony of witnesses. For a naturalized citizen, you'll find information about the immigration, such as date and port of arrival, and date and place of naturalization. Some files even have copies of discharge from Union service in the Civil War, because a subsequent act gave special privileges to those veterans.

Homestead files are in two series: one for completed land entries and one for canceled land entries. Both are useful. The completed land entry files are in the custody of the National Archives in Washington, D.C., in Record Group 49. The canceled land entry papers are scattered among a variety of repositories, but they can yield clues to why the requirements were not fulfilled.

For help in understanding and locating homestead and other land records, consult Ancestry's The Source, Greenwood's Research Guide to American Genealogy, and Wade Hone's Land and Property Research in the United States.

Passport Records

Although passports were not required until World War I, (except for a brief period during the Civil War), many individuals obtained them as a little extra protection. This was especially true for male immigrants who were afraid of being conscripted into the military service in their country of origin if they journeyed there. Immigrants to the United States did return to the “Old Country” to visit relatives, marry, take a child to see his or her grandparents, or, perhaps, to bring a family to the United States. Later passport records are more complete, but you will usually get some personal information from older ones. Two micropublication series to check are the Register and Indexes for Passport Applications 1810-1906, M1371, and Passport Applications 1795-1905, M1371.

The Mail Is Here

Most villages had a post office, even if it was only a tiny back room in the general store, and a local resident was employed as the postmaster. The Records of Appointment of Postmasters, 1832-30 September 1971, micropublication M841, is available at the National Archives and all field branches. For each post office, the registers contain the dates of establishment and discontinuance, and the names and dates of postmaster appointments. Earlier appointments are on Records of Appointment of Postmasters, October 1789-1832, micropublication M1131. Although there is usually no genealogical information in these records, the dates prove residence in a specific area, and knowing that an individual was a postmaster adds interest to the family history.