New GeneaGem: NARA Record Group Explorer

Here is the first new GeneaGem of 2020. The U.S. National Archives (NARA) has a page called Record Group Explorer.

It’s a finding aid to more than 575 record groups held by the National Archives.

NARA estimates that less than 1% of its holdings have been digitized and made available online as of January 2020:

Scrolling through all the collections can be overwhelming, but there is one helpful feature. The boxes are color coded:

The green box means the collection has been completely digitized. Light blue indicates it is partially finished, with the percentage of the collection completed in the bottom right corner. The grayish tan color indicates that nothing in that particular record set has been digitized.

TWO warnings here, before I proceed. First, don’t use the search box in the gray area above the blue boxes to search for names. You must choose a record group and then a collection to search. Second, the website is not fast at searches. After entering a search name or term, it may scroll for 15 seconds or more. Be patient and if it times out, try again. It will be worth the wait if records pop up.

Since I was just browsing, I chose RG 15, the Department of Veteran Affairs, which is in the second row of record groups, even though only 2.780% of this group has been digitized.

I was totally captivated by this new BSO (bright, shiny object) and immediately began entering some of the less common surnames in the family tree and I was immediately rewarded!

The first box was for Textual Records and, just above is Browse Our Records.

This Record Group contains military pension files and other military records for the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, War of 1818, etc.! It says images are provided from Fold3, but all are viewable with no subscription.

I mentioned that I was immediately rewarded. I first entered surnames from my husband’s tree – Stufflebean, Brasher, Perkins and some others because I knew Dave had direct ancestors in each of those families who fought in the Civil War.

What I found for several of them were enlistment papers, which I had never seen before. Here is one of the pages for John Stufflebean, who enlisted at the age of 41. It’s his medical examination.


I already knew his date of birth. This form says he was born in Clay County, Kentucky, but it is more likely that he was born in Estill County, where the family lived in 1820. His occupation was farmer. It also says that the previous October, he had some disease, which I haven’t yet figured out:

A second page gleaned a bit more information:

Had I not known John’s birth date was 30 June 1821, I now would be able to narrow his birth to June 1821 as the top of this page states that on 2 May 1863, he was 41 years and 11 months old.

On a couple of other sets of enlistment papers, hair and eye color along with height was noted. In just a few minutes, I snipped images for four of Dave’s Civil War ancestors and learned a bit more about each of them.

My search for John Stufflebean brought up the full pension file for Dave’s Revolutionary War ancestor.

I checked out the Photographs category, which is two boxes to the right of the Textual Records and searched for Passaic. Most of the images were for the 1940 census! This wouldn’t be my preferred method of accessing the census as it is not searchable by name, but the images are there.

Next, I clicked on the RG 49 -Bureau of Land Management, which is in the 3rd row of the list of record groups. Choices similar to those in the Department of Veterans Affairs appeared: Textual Records, Map and Charts and Photographs.

I could spend days wandering down this rabbit hole, but the Record Group Explorer is a terrific FREE resource. I would particularly recommend the Veterans Affairs tab to check for goodies like John Stufflebean’s Civil War enlistment papers. I can’t even begin to speculate what treasures are lurking in the other 575+ Record Groups!


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