U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services document fees will skyrocket in 2020, NPR reported. The price for obtaining some documents will rise by as much as 500 percent, exponentially increasing costs for genealogists nationwide. Where are family records found and what can they tell us?
The NPR article states that the offices of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) holds “millions” of records. “These include alien registration files, files for certificates of naturalization, and visa files, if one applied for a visa to come to the United States,” it said. “For people trying to trace their family histories, these files can offer critical information, including photos.” To the uninitiated, genealogy can look like an intimidating mess of documentation that bears little impact on their daily lives. However, the storing of family records and our retrieval of them are the pieces of the puzzle that illustrate our roles in human history.
In the Archives
The internet holds countless options for obtaining genealogical data, though inaccurate archives and faulty private companies can produce false results or send genealogists down the wrong path.
“The most reliable internet sites tend to be those maintained by government agencies such as the U.S. National Archives, the Library of Congress, and the 50 state archives,” said Dr. John Philip Colletta, faculty member at the Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research at Samford University. “They contain a colossal number of digitized historical sources and experts vet the content of these sites. Governmental agencies are maintained for the public good and their websites are free to use.”
Their thoroughness and reliability stems from the U.S. Census, which has been taken “every 10 years since 1790,” according to Dr. Colletta.
Dr. Colletta added that expert vetting of genealogical content also extends to websites run by nonprofit organizations such as the Family History Library of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, “as well as universities and historical societies.” However, many of those sites feature user-uploaded content as well; so, he advised caution and to maintain healthy skepticism.
Starting with the Census
The U.S. Census, taken once every 10 years, collects official information about the United States population. Many Americans have found it to be a useful starting point in researching their family history. Early censuses differed from those taken today and they require extra care when gathering information.
“Censuses of 1790 through 1840 name only the head of household,” Dr. Colletta said. “Other members of the household are indicated with slash marks in columns representing age and sex categories. These categories are provided separately for free white persons, free colored persons, and slaves.”
Adding to the confusion, slaves aren’t named in most pre-emancipation census data, nor is the relationship of the head of household to the others living there clarified. “In 1850 and 1860, slaves were enumerated on separate schedules, but not by name,” Dr. Colletta said. “Researching slave ancestry entails special challenges.”
Every year, family historians and amateur genealogists begin constructing a family tree. Official government sites offer an enormous collective of information, and censuses can do the same for those families who were named on them, despite the increasing cost of accessing many records that will roll out this year.
Dr. John Philip Colletta contributed to this article. Dr. Colletta is one of America’s most popular genealogy lecturers. He is a faculty member at the Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama; the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy; and Boston University’s Genealogical Research Program. He earned his Ph.D. from The Catholic University of America.