Demystifying the National Archives

Your first visit to the National Archives can be a confusing and frustrating experience if you don't understand how to use their extensive collection of historical records.

National Archives

And even if you aren't visiting the National Archives, but have found a copy of their microfilm collection at a local library of historical society, the experience can be just as terrifying.

These microfilmed rolls of archives contain census records, passenger lists, military records and much, much more. Finding information about your relatives, as you can imagine, is a tricky prospect since these archives contain millions upon millions of entries. In case you are wondering, you don't have to buy the rolls you can just view them during your visit!

What am I going to find in these records?

There is a lot of interesting information you can discover in these records. From the cencus records you can find out names, ages, and places of birth of each member of the family (wife, son, daughter) living in the household, as well as, other individuals who may also have been living there, but had a different surname.

You can also find out what year they immigrated to this country. If that happens to be between 1891 and 1957, you can then find out the name of the ship and from that ship's passenger list each passenger's name, age, sex, occupation, last permanent residence, and the name of the country in which each intended to reside.

So how do you get started?

First you will need to determine the Soundex representation of your family surname, so that you can find the appropriate census roll from the soundex index. Soundex is a coded last name (surname) index based on the way a name sounds rather than the way it is spelled. Surnames that sound the same, but are spelled differently, like SMITH and SMYTH, have the same code and are filed together. The Soundex coding system was developed so that you can find a surname even though it may have been recorded under various spellings.

The Soundex Coding System

Every code consists of a letter and three numbers, such as S-650. The letter is always the first letter of the surname, whether it is a vowel or a consonant. Disregard the remaining vowels and W, Y, and H, and assign numbers to the next three consonants of the surname according to the Soundex coding guide found below. If there are not three consonants following the initial letter, use zeros to fill out the three-digit code. For example, Lee would be coded as L-000.

Letters and Coded Equivalents

  1. b, p, f, v
  2. c, s, k, g, j, q, x, z
  3. d, t
  4. l
  5. m, n
  6. r

If the surname has a prefix, such as van, Von, De, Di, or Le, code it both with and without the prefix because it might be listed under either code. The surname vanDevanter, for example, could be V-531 or D-153. Mc and Mac are not considered prefixes.

A surname may have different letters that are side by side and have the same number on the Soundex coding guide; for example, PF in Pfister (1 is the number for both P and F); CKS in Jackson (2 is the number for C, K, and S). These letters should be treated as one letter. Thus in the name Pfister, F should be crossed out; in the name Jackson, K and S should be crossed out.

I've got my Soundex, now what?

Find the roll which contains your soundex code in it and start searching. Most of the time their will be more than one soundex code on a single roll, and quite often a single soundex code will span multiple rolls. The soundex code will appear on the left hand corner of each page. For example, if your family soundex is B-650, find the rolls that has soundex B632-B653, and you can just flip past B-632 to B-649.

l4. B-632 Thomas E.--B-650 David 15. B-650 David--B-650 Wesley 16. B-650 Wesley--B-653 Rufus

Once you find the pages with the B-650 soundex, start looking for lines which have the first name of the head of household (most likely the male ancestor). If the head of household name is John, you would flip passed A-I and go right to the J first names. Once you locate your family member, you will see a set of numbers in the right hand corner of the page.

Vol_____ ED_____ SHEET______ LINE_____

Write down the ED (enumeration district), SHEET (page #) and LINE information. Now go to the census books located at the table. If you need Passaic Co. ED100, look to see which reel ED100 is on for Passaic Co.

When you get that reel, flip through it until you come to ED100 then start looking for the SHEET you wrote down. The 1910 census is slightly different as you will see three sets of numbers (eg. 593 480 120) on the page. The ED is the middle set of numbers (ie. 480) and you will have to look through the entire ED480 reel since it doesn't tell you the SHEET.

What about the Ship information?

The census data will tell you what year they arrived in this country. Go to the ship passenger arrival records for that year. It is alphabetically arranged, so find the soundex you were looking for again.

71 B-650 Mr.--B-650 Gladys E. 72 B-650 Gorden--B-650 Pierina 73 B-650 Pila--B-652 Cora Lee

If you already know the name of the ship, the year (or date) that they arrived, you can look through alphabetical indexes (by port of entry) of passenger manifests grouped by shipping line and arranged chronologically by date of arrival.

30 Italian; Prince Jan. 16, 1907 31 Italian; Prince May 8, 1907 32 Italian; Prince Aug. 2, 1907

Once you know the ship, ask for a blank NATF 81 form so you can request copies of the actual immigration papers completed when your relatives arrived at the port. That will tell you the specific city they came from, and possibly the names of their parents.

As for your Italian relatives... We have all have heard the unflattering nickname "WOP", at one time or another, but you probably never knew it simply stood for "WithOut Papers". So you might have problems locating their immigration information, because they didn't have any!

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