Researching your heritage — and your military lineage, in particular — is becoming an easier, all-around richer experience every day. (John Harman / Staff)
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Where to start
The National Archives and Records Administration is the official repository for historical military records, including Civil War and War of 1812 pension records being digitized now. You’re also able to search Ancestry.com for free at any NARA facility.
Dig up your roots
Ancestry.com’s Matthew Deighton points out that the records of many governmental and private organizations are in paper format — or in some cases microfilm or microfiche — and difficult to search. "Ancestry.com has people go to specific locations for some of the more fragile records, and they take high-resolution pictures of the documents," he said. "For collections with documents that are less fragile, they’ll be packaged up and sent to the company’s headquarters to have them scanned." Once a record is made into a digital image, someone looks at all the words and names on it and creates a searchable index.
Some of Deighton’s advice:
Don’t believe everything you read. When first constructing your family tree, carefully evaluate source information. Make sure you’ve got the right person. The closer to yourself, generationally, that an error occurs, the greater the consequence. Misidentifying a grandfather, for example, could cause one-fourth of your entire subsequent research to be wrong. You can spend a lot of time cleaning up the battlefield after a mistake.
Plug in all the details, then keep digging. When using Ancestry.com to research a person, enter all the information you may have on that person, Deighton says. "Using the ‘search all records’ feature can be good if you’re just getting started. Most of the time you’ll pull up census records, which is fine if you’re building a family out. There is definitely fruit there. You can often find occupation, where they were living, maybe how much they paid for rent or bought their house for, if they had various amenities or features in their house, such as a radio," he added. "But, if you want to find documents that make for a well-rounded story of your ancestor, you’re going to need to branch out. Go to the card catalog and search specific databases."
Look for pension records. For example, the War of 1812 Pension Application File is a newly digitized and indexed collection on Ancestry.com’s partner website Fold3.com. "These documents can be anywhere from several pages to 30-plus pages, and they include widows or family members of those who fought in the War of 1812 applying for a pension," he said. They had to prove their relationship to the service member, and that backup information could include the names of other family members, battles the member fought in, names of other troops he served with and more.
Search from the profile page. To better focus a search, go to that person’s profile in your Ancestry.com family tree and click the button just below his or her picture that reads "Search Records." You can select specific record types to search, including military. Searching from the individual’s profile page versus the main family tree page can improve search results for that person because all of the research and data you may have already attached to that person is entered into the mix, resulting in a more intelligent search that correlates things such as names of parents, dates and locations of birth and death, and places they may have lived. Details such as when and where a person may have served in the military or whether he was an officer or enlisted member also can help return better search results. Ancestry.com’s advanced search capabilities also help overcome name variations or little deviations recorded by people such as census takers.
Go to marriage records for maiden names. Wives didn’t figure prominently in old documents. "The most difficult part in searching for women is their names change," Deighton said. "What you need to do is find a marriage record that provides her maiden name. Once you have that, you can find earlier census records with the woman and her parents. That’s one way of breaking down brick walls."
"Watch out," a good friend warned a couple of years ago when I said I had just signed up for an Ancestry.com account. "Once you learn about these people, you'll become obsessed with finding out more. It'll become addicting."
He was right. The research turned up incredible stories about previously unknown characters, circumstances and mysteries in my family roots.
Some family history as recent as that of great-grandparents was unknown until digital tools became available to enable remarkable research from your home computer. Now, researching your heritage — and your military lineage, in particular — is becoming an easier, all-around richer experience every day.
The family tree bears a mix of intrepid souls who crossed the Atlantic from France, England and the Netherlands in the 1660s to help build communities from Massachusetts to Quebec City. The blood of Irish immigrants fleeing famine in the mid-19th century also mingles with mine.
The family fabric is woven from bankers and attorneys, a firebrand reverend, meat cutters, frontiersmen, newspaper publishers, physicians, merchants and more. Stories emerge of incredible wealth, estranged families, skilled craftsmen, Revolutionary War patriotism — even treason.
I only wish today's capabilities had existed 10 or 20 years ago, when aging relatives regularly wondered aloud at long-past events that so greatly influenced their own lives.
My grandfather, Francis "Smitty" Smith, and his older brother Bainbridge Eugene Smith had minimal knowledge of their family tree. Their dad died when they were boys early in the 20th century.
Although they were born into a wealthy family, a still-undetermined breakdown of family relations after their father died resulted in the boys being placed in an orphanage and later in a boarding school.
We called Uncle Bainbridge "Benny" and had always wondered where his first name came from. He served in the Army Air Corps in World War II and eventually retired from the Air Force. Through the wonders of today's digital record search capabilities, I was able to trace his and my grandfather's lineage to the days of English knights.
Included in the pedigree is a patriot great-grandfather, Thomas Smith, a member of the New York Provincial Congress who seconded the motion for the colonies to go to war with England.
In a "WTF" moment, however, further investigation revealed that his baby brother was duped into facilitating Benedict Arnold's meeting with British spy Maj. John Andre in none other than Thomas Smith's house in Haverstraw, N.Y. Andre was captured and hanged. The younger Smith was acquitted of treason.
Another direct ancestor is Presbyterian Rev. Abraham Keteltas, who preached passionately about the righteousness of the rebel cause against the king of England.
The Keteltases evacuated their house in Jamaica, Queens, N.Y., as the Redcoats advanced on and occupied the city. British Gen. Cortlandt Skinner made their home his headquarters.
One of the reverend's grandchildren, my uncle Henry Keteltas, served in the 15th New York Regiment in the Civil War. Although he came from a well-off family, records show he enlisted as a private. But he was a captain by Chickamauga and, apparently, a brevet lieutenant colonel around war's end.
I found numerous records using Ancestry.com, but as my sleuthing skills improved, I found more through the National Archives, digitized newspapers and Google.
Now Ancestry.com has partnered with Fold3.com and, for a fee, users can access hundreds of thousands of military-related archives being digitized.
The National Archives and Records Administration is the official repository for the historical or permanently valuable records of the federal government, including official military records.
John Deeben, an NARA staff genealogist, said the National Archives Building in Washington has military service and pension records for volunteer soldiers from 1775 to about 1902 — the Revolutionary War through the Philippine Insurrection.
"We also have various records documenting service in the regular Army/Navy/Marine Corps from 1798 to 1914," he said. "For 20th-century military service beginning with World War I, NARA has official military personnel folders for all service branches, which are held by the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Mo."
Deeben noted that military service records generally provide information about the individual soldier but rarely anything about family — even immediate family, such as parents or next of kin.
"Pension records are much more valuable for genealogical research, especially pension applications for widows and dependents, because they had to prove their relationship to the deceased soldier and consequently provided useful details about marriage and births of minor-aged children," he said.
Finding information used to require a trip to the National Archives or other records repositories, such as county courthouses. It involved sometimes painstakingly slow research for obscure, long-forgotten pieces of paper.
Today, many important and revealing records are just a few keystrokes, mouse clicks and, usually, an online credit card payment away.
Depending on the research, spending about a dollar a day to access electronic archives is a lot cheaper than trekking to Washington, New York City, Canada or beyond.
While these records are generally considered public, there's a reason they're not free.
The National Archives and other repositories have partnered with private companies for digital imaging and indexing.
"Since NARA doesn't have the resources to digitize all our records on our own, we have to rely on digitization partners such as Ancestry, Fold3 and FamilySearch to scan and host the digital images for us," Deeben said. "In return, we receive free access to those sites and images."
For that reason, it is possible to search Ancestry for free — from any NARA research facility.
"They are now starting to branch out to ... records that are only available in their original textual format, such as the Civil War widows' pension applications, War of 1812 pension files and Civil War draft enrollment records," Deeben said.
"Other NARA records have been digitized by our staff and are hosted on ARC, our own online Archival Research Catalog," he explained. "We have over 10 billion pages of original records, so it's hard to say if or when all of our holdings will eventually be digitized. For now, we're concentrating on the most heavily used records."
Visiting the archives can be time-consuming. Deeben said a person requesting a "record pull" when the archives first opens at 9 a.m. could expect to see the record around 11 to 11:30 a.m.
People also can send questions to a general research email address, firstname.lastname@example.org. There are mail-in request forms for standard types of genealogy records, including census records, ship passenger manifests of immigrants, military service documents and land records. The services, which require a fee, are listed on the NARA website.
Arrangements between the government and companies such as Ancestry and Fold3 can be viewed at www.archives.gov/digitization.
"You won't find all of the images that Ancestry has digitized just by searching NARA's own website; you still have to go to Ancestry," Deeben cautioned.
"Five years after a particular record set has been digitized, we are allowed to disseminate those images however we like," he added.
There's always another gap to plug or picture to color in. One document with background on my third great-grandfather Charles Bainbridge Smith mentioned a relationship on his mother's side to Commodore William Bainbridge, of War of 1812 fame.
If the connection to the storied commodore is proven, the next road trip may be to Boston, again to walk the decks of "Old Ironsides."