Mrs. Bennett Goes to Washington (And Squeals in the Middle of the National Archives)

I squealed in the research room of the National Archives. Yes, squealed. Stood up, bounced on my toes, waved my hands, and went, “Eeepppp!” Nobody turned around, stared, or said a thing to me. I guess this must be a regular occurrence. Before I get to the reason I yelped, I should let you know a little about how I got there.

Through careful planning, and in conjunction with my mother-in-law’s visit, I was able to spend two days at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. I was giddy, excited, and scared, all at one time. So many questions, so many possible answers, and they were just a few files away. I had my bearings within an hour, but there were still moments of: oh, wow, look at all that information!

After passing though security and getting my research card, I dug right in on requesting records. I prepped for the trip by printing out the index images for the Civil War Veterans I wanted to look at, as well as printing out as much information as I could on the two ancestors from the War of 1812 I wanted to find. The librarians were extremely patient and very nice. They kindly helped me, answered my questions, and didn’t laugh when I dropped the microfilm roll and watched it roll down the aisle.

This trip I did a shotgun approach on my relatives. I chose nine records from my family and my husband’s family to begin poking around. My husband reminded me that if I have to go back we can arrange the time and not to get too frantic; it is only an hour, or four, away depending on I-95 traffic. Out of the nine files I requested to see, one was returned. That still left me with eight files to look at, and two of them were several inches thick!

It is going to take me a while to get through all of this information. I took digital images of each page in each file: up near 1,000 images in total. Before I took the pictures, I visually scanned each document for information. Each one held amazing clues to my ancestor’s lives. For example: death causes, names of family members, dates of births and deaths, places they lived, and the real reason my husband’s second-great-grandfather changed his name.

The one file request that was returned to me was for Frances Marion Bline. I had the card and wrote down the numbers, but still they couldn’t find him. Lucky for me, I asked for help from a staff member who was just as bugged as I was by not being able to find my ancestor’s record. After a call to his boss, resulting in her taking trip into the stacks, I got some not-so-good news. His rejected pension application file was destroyed sometime in the past before the decision was made to keep all rejected applications. I was bummed, but you know, not everything can go perfectly, right?

Oh, and I bet you want to know why I squealed? I found a copy of a tin-type for Harry Coad, my husband’s 2nd great-grandfather; yes, the rare photograph that turns up periodically in the pension files. My mother-in-law was there with me when I found it, and I thought she was going to squeal too. It was like my very own “Who Do You Think You Are?” moment! More on dear ole’ Harry coming up in a future post.

Photo from the Library of Congress

Family Tree Firsts is an ongoing blog series featuring newbie genealogist Shannon Bennett of Locust Grove, Va.

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11 thoughts on “Mrs. Bennett Goes to Washington (And Squeals in the Middle of the National Archives)

  1. I did a similar approach when I got my reader card yesterday. I brought information on 2 ancestors from the Revolutionary War, but I only had an hour to find any information. No Squee moment (didn’t find what I was looking for on that trip), but a very nice archivist helped me to locate a few other possible places for the information. It really does help to have a plan of attack when visiting the National Archives, and to do your homework ahead of time. The archivists have a plethora of resources, too, and are more than willing to offer assistance. I think they get as big a kick out of what everyone is researching as we get in actually doing the research.

  2. Yes that is true. On day two of my adventure one of them came over and talked to me for a bit on how the files were put together and how this page was done for that reason. They are all very nice, helpful, and have an awesome job!

  3. I’ve heard those squeals at the library in SLC, but I’ve never been fortunate enough to make it to the National Archives. I must say I’m jealous! Since I can’t get there, is it possible to do any of that research online? I realize it wouldn’t be the same as actually seeing it in person, though.

  4. I squealed a few times when I was there, and also used up all my tissues in my pocket. The best thing was that all the other researchers in the room smiled when I squealed, and came over and hugged me when I cried. My kind of place!

  5. What an amazing experience for you! I can imagine squealing when you saw the photo, I know I would do the same. I recently received a photo of my second great grandmother from a new found cousin and I squealed in delight with that!

  6. Diane – There is a project on Flicker that the National Archives supports where you can look at images other people have taken and uploaded. You can also comment and tagg these items, and items that NARA uploads too.

    Check out thier Citizen Archivist Dashboard for more information and to help.

    The researcher who was at the table next to my mother-in-law and I smiled and chatted for a few minutes. He asked to see the picture and delighted in it with us too.

    I am going through his records right now so I can let you all know what I found. Before I let you all know, I have to call my father-in-law and let him know about his great grandfather. A nearly 100 year old mystery solved!

    His image will be in an upcoming post…I am excited just talking about! Even better, my husband’s high school graduation picture is a dead ringer for his ancestor.

  7. The squeal moments of fellow researchers are very special and encouraging for me. I had a great great grandfather who left Johnston Co., NC in 1858 with his son and two dauthers. He resurfaced in Rutherford Co., NC later in the year & had a marriage bond posted for remairrage. He then vanished from all records I have been able to find on several search sites. His son who was 5 years old in 1858 returned to Johnston Co., NC 13 years later, but apparently never told anyone what happened to his father and two sisters. My squeal moment is yet to come, but it will come. The problem is that I’ll probably be so overcome with sobs of pure joy my squeal will be a silent one. Thanks for the encouragement.

  8. I had that same Who Do You Think You Are moment here at home…scared the dog under the desk too. After years (yes years)of the dreaded wall and looking at the same obit of gggranddad Samuel Dickinson I finally really looked at it…a duh moment. At the bottom was a listings of other relatives (not his kids which I knew) and I grabbed the computer and scanned some census. There they were…sisters and brothers, children to the brother of Samuel’s father (lose you yet?). I started finding so much more after getting around the wall. Not through it but I did finally find the old geezer granddad Sam….kicked him in the butt, turned around and headed back up the tree looking for more family. I do love a good search like that

  9. Yup, I have done the “happy dance” at the national archives over information in a civil war pension. My husband and I each have one Union Veteran in our ancestry so I also planned ahead and requested those files. There was a letter from my paternal grandmother written in 1913 requesting information on her maternal grandfather in his file. Her mother was his only child and she was taken back to Tennessee as an infant and wondered all her life what had happened to her father. I was looking at all the pieces of the puzzle and I wondered if some clerk in 1913 had been kind enough to send them a letter telling of Stephen C. Liscombs death in Ellis County Kansas in 1882.

  10. Shannon – So glad your military course paid off in being able to find records at the National Archives! I love those “aha” moments – even when they aren’t mine.

  11. Diana your course has been with me constantly over the last month. It has been amazing to be able to put into action what I learned. Particularly when I discovered letters written home that are now at NARA in pensions files!

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