Genealogical Research using State Department Records
While most records of the Department of State relate in some way to the planning and implementation of American foreign policy and relations, the files include documentation relating to individuals. Some series of records particularly lend themselves to use in genealogical study. Those records are primarily found in the following two record groups.
- Record Group 59: General Records of the Department of State
- Record Group 84: Records of Foreign Service Posts of the Department of State
Record Group 59: General Records of the Department of State
There are files in this record group relating both to people who served as officials in government service and to individual persons.
Name Card Index. For each segment of the Department's central file there are cards, which serve as a finding aid for communications to, from, or about private persons or organizations. Researchers cannot rely on the name cards to locate all documents relating to or mentioning a given individual. While the name index is an important tool and can assist with indentifying documents and files of interest, the coverage is limited. Name cards do not exist for every name mentioned in the records, or there may only be one card leading to a file with many documents. To locate all pertinent documentation, one must determine the file designation most likely to contain records of interest and then make a document-by-document search. While this can be laborious, it will result in the most comprehensive results. The cards are divided into segments matching those of the records to which they relate:
- 1906-10: Numerical and Minor File
- 1910-29: Central Decimal File
- 1930-39: Central Decimal File
- 1940-44: Central Decimal File
- 1945-49: Central Decimal File
- 1950-54: Central Decimal File
- 1955-59: Central Decimal File
- 1960-January 1963: Central Decimal File
- February-December 1963: Subject-Numeric File
- 1964-66: Subject-Numeric File
- 1967-69: Subject-Numeric File
- 1970-73: Subject-Numeric File
The Name Cards for 1910-1959 are available for research. The Name Cards for 1960-1973 are classified and are not available to researchers. NARA reference staff can perform very limited searches in the classified index for researchers.
The Department of State is responsible for issuing passports. Except for brief periods during the Civil War (August 19, 1861 to March 17, 1862) and World War I (1915-1922), U.S. citizens did not require passports for travel overseas until 1941. Since then, American citizens traveling overseas have been required to hold passports. The National Archives holds passport applications only to March 1925. Passport applications after that date remain in the custody of the Department of State.
See more information about passports and passport applications
The following series of passport applications in this record group have been digitized by a partner and are available at all NARA facilities. Those with a highlighted entry number are available through the Catalog, albeit without the search capability provided by the partner.
|RG 59-A1-508||PASSPORT APPLICATIONS, 1795-1905|
|RG 59-A1-515||EMERGENCY PASSPORT APPLICATIONS, 1877-1907|
|RG 59-A1-534||PASSPORT APPLICATIONS, 1906-1925|
|RG 59-A1-534A||APPLICATIONS FOR EXTENTION OR AMENDMENT, 1918-1925|
|RG 59-A1-535||PASSPORT APPLICATIONS-SPECIAL SERIES, 1914-1925|
|RG 59-A1-536||SPECIAL PASSPORT APLLICATIONS, 1914-1925|
|RG 59-A1-537||SPECIAL DIPLOMATIC PASSPORT APPLICATIONS, 1916-1925|
|RG 59-A1-538||PASSPORT APPLICATIONS - DECLARANT, 1907-1911 AND 1914-1920|
|RG 59-A1-539||PASSPORT APPLICATIONS - INSULAR, 1913-1925|
|RG 59-A1-540||PASSPORT APPLICATIONS - CHINESE, 1915-1925|
|RG 59-A1-542||PASSPORT APPLICATION - U.S. TERRITORIES AND POSSESSIONS, 1907-1925|
|RG 59-A1-543||MISCELLANEOUS EMERGENCY PASSPORT APPLICATIONS (PASSPORT ISSUED ABROAD), 1907-1923|
|RG 59-A1-544||EMERGENCY PASSPORT APPLICATIONS (PASSPORTS ISSUED ABROAD), 1906-1925|
|RG 59-A1-545||APPLICATIONS OF WIVES OF MEMBERS OF THE AMERICAN EXPEDITIONARY FORCES IN EUROPE, 1919-1920|
|RG 59-A1-546||APPLICATIONS FOR CERTIFICATES OF IDENTIFICATION - GERMANY, 1920-1921|
For information about gaining access to passport applications retained by the Department of State, see here.
The Department of State issues visas to foreigners traveling to the United States. Except for a brief time during the Civil War (1861-1865), before World War I, alien visitors did not require visas passports in order to enter the United States. The practice of requiring all aliens to obtain visas from U.S. officials abroad before departure for the United States began in 1917 as a war measure during World War I, and has continued since then.
There is one series of Visa Case Files covering the period 1914-1940. It is divided into three chronological segments: 1914-1923, 1924-1932, and 1933-1940, each arranged alphabetically by name. With the exception of precedent cases and files that contain policy material, individual case files for 1914-23 and 1924-32 have been destroyed. Visa case files since 1940 have not been preserved.
For more information about Department of State visa records and related records of other agencies, please see this reference report.
Americans giving birth overseas often reported that event to the local American diplomatic or consular establishment, which would complete the requisite form and send it to the Department of State. The National Archives holds a separate collection of those reports for the 1910-49 period. Earlier reports might be among the Department's central files; later reports remain in the custody of the Department of State.
The 1910-49 reports have been digitized and are available at all NARA facilities.
For information about gaining access to birth reports retained by the Department of State, see here; for Panama Canal Zone birth records, see here.
Americans marrying overseas often reported that event to the local American diplomatic or consular establishment, which would complete the requisite form and send it to the Department of State. The National Archives holds a separate collection of those reports for the 1910-49 period. Earlier reports might be among the Department's central files; later reports remain in the custody of the Department of State.
The 1910-49 reports, maintained in the central file of the Passport Office, have been digitized and are available at all NARA facilities.
Additional records are found in the series "Certificates of Witness to Marriage, 1925-1987."
For information about gaining access to marriage reports retained by the Department of State, see here.
Death Notices and Reports
Since at least 1835, one of the duties of consular officers has been to report to the Department of State information about U.S. citizens who have died within their consular districts. Files with this information have been transferred to the National Archives. The records in the National Archives date through 1974. Reports of deaths from 1975 and later remain in the custody of the Department of State.
The records in the National Archives vary over time as the Department’s recordkeeping practices changed.
1789-1906. The death reports submitted to the Department are filed among the Consular Despatches. Those records are arranged by the name of the city in which the consulate was located and thereunder chronologically. The Consular Despatches have all been microfilmed and that microfilm is now available online. To locate reports you must know the source (post), date, and despatch number. There are various findings to help:
♦1789-1827. No finding aids.
♦1828-1906. (a) Registers. The “Registers of Consular Despatches” are divided into two basic period: 1828-1870 (38 volumes) and 1870-1906 (14 volumes). The 1870-1906 records are available on rolls 19-32 of National Archives Microfilm Publication M17: Registers of Correspondence of the Department of State, 1870-1906. The register lists by post the incoming despatches and their subjects.
(b) Other records: The “Record of Death Notices of U.S. Citizens Abroad, 1835-1855,” is a one volume, chronologically arranged listing of the death notices sent by the Department of State to a U.S. newspaper for publication. The “Notices of Deaths of U.S. Citizens Abroad, 1857-1922” is a 34 volume, chronologically arranged compilation of the form notices sent by the Department of State to newspapers reporting the deaths of U.S. citizens in foreign countries. The notices in the latter series contain the name of the deceased, the place and date of death, the consulate reporting the death, and the number and date of the despatch reporting the death. Both of these series are among the digitized records noted below.
1906-1910. Reports of deaths abroad are filed in the Numerical and Minor Files. The reports are NOT among the digitized files noted below. There are two finding aids to these records that will assist with locating death reports:
(a) The primary finding aid to the records is the Card Index. That index is arranged in one alphabetical run. The index card will indicate the file designation of the person carded.
(b) The “Notices of Deaths of U.S. Citizens Abroad, 1857-1922,” noted above, can also assist in locating death reports in this time period.
For more information on the Numerical and Minor Files and the Card Index and links to the online resources, see here.
1910-1963. The death reports are in the Central Decimal File. These records are among the digitized records noted below. There are two finding aids that will assist with locating death reports:
(a) 1910-1963. The Name Card index will indicate the file designation of the person carded. If there is no entry, there is no death report.
(b) For the period through 1922, the “Notices of Deaths of U.S. Citizens Abroad, 1857-1922,” noted above, can also assist in locating death reports.
1963-1974. Death reports were filed apart from the central files. They are arranged by year and thereunder in rough alphabetical order. To locate a report, it is necessary to know the year as well as the name of the deceased. These records are among the digitized records noted below.
The records have been digitized and are available at all NARA facilities.
For information about gaining access to death reports retained by the Department of State, see here
for Panama Canal Zone death records, see here
Records on Military Personnel Buried Overseas
American Battle Monuments Commission
2300 Clarendon Blvd, Suite 500
Arlington, VA 22201
Records on Active Duty Military Personnel
Deaths of active-duty military personnel are reported to the Department of Defense. Each service handles its own files.
U.S. Army Human Resources Command
Army Casualty and Mortuary Affairs Operations Division
1600 Spearhead Div Ave
Fort Knox, KY 40122-5405
Navy Casualty Assistance Division
Navy Personnel Command
5720 Integrity Dr.
Millington, TN 38055-6200
Headquarters, Air Force Personnel Center
Air Force Casualty Services
550 C Street, West
Randolph AFB, TX 78150-4716
U.S. Marine Corps
U.S. Marine Corps
Casualty Assistance Section (MFPC)
2008 Elliott Road
Quantico, VA 22134-5102
U. S. Coast Guard Personnel Service Center
Personnel Service Division - Field Support (Casualty)
4200 Wilson Blvd. Suite 927
Arlington, VA 20598-7200
II. Officials in Government Service
Some of the more important series of records containing information about persons who served in the government are described below. Please note that this list is not all-inclusive.
Letters of Application Recommendation for Public Office. The records are arranged in chronological periods by Presidential administration and thereunder alphabetically by name of applicant. The files contain applications and letters of recommendation for positions in the government, including diplomatic and consular service.
- George Washington Administration. In the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress.
The following records are available on National Archives Microfilm Publications as noted. Each publication is accompanied by a descriptive pamphlet that includes an alphabetical listing of applicants.
- John Adams Administration, 1797-1801: M406
- Jefferson Administration, 1801-1809: M418
- Madison Administration, 1809-1817: M438
- Monroe Administration, 1817-1825: M439
- J.Q. Adams Administration, 1825-1829: M531
- Jackson Administration, 1829-1836: M639
- Van Buren, W. Harrison, Tyler Administrations, 1836-1845: M687
- Polk, Taylor, Filmore Administrations, 1845-1853: M873
- Pierce, Buchanan Administrations, 1853-1861: M967
- Lincoln, A. Johns Administrations, 1861-1869: M650
- Grant Administration, 1869-1877: M968
- Records not on Microfilm
- Hayes, Garfield, Arthur Administrations, 1877-1885
- Cleveland, B. Harrison Administrations, 1885-1893
- Cleveland Administration, 1893-1897
- McKinley Administration, 1897-1901
The following records are available for use at the National Archives at College Park. Lists of names for each administration are available in our online catalog.
Applications and Recommendations to the Consular and Diplomatic Services, 1901-24. Arranged alphabetically by name of applicant. The files may contain applications, letters of recommendation, appointment papers, and related documentation. A list of the names is here.
Card Records of Appointments Made, 1776-1968. Beginning in 1789, the Secretary of State prepared the civil commissions of U.S. officials appointed by the President, affixed the Great Seal to such documents, and kept records for such appointments. For the period 1776 to 1968, there are record cards for each person appointed and commissioned. The cards indicate the date(s) of appointment and type of position. The cards are arranged in the following time periods: 1776-1933, 1934-1953, 1954-1960, and 1961-1968.
Service Record Cards, 1890-1939. Cards with information on persons who served in the Diplomatic, Consular, or Foreign Service or in subordinate positions. These cards may contain biographical information such as date and place of birth, education, and notes on service.
Lists of U.S. Diplomatic Officers by Country, 1789-1939. Lists, arranged alphabetically by name of country in which a diplomatic post was located, thereunder by class of officer, and thereunder chronologically by date of appointment. Information on individuals includes title or grade, nationality, place of birth, residence when appointed, and date of appointment. Occasionally, the date of death, retirement, termination of service, or transfer to another post is noted.
Lists of U.S. Consular Officers by Post, 1789-1939. Lists, arranged alphabetically by name of consular post, thereunder by class of officer, and thereunder chronologically by date of appointment. Information on individuals includes title or grade, nationality, place of birth, residence when appointed, and date of appointment. Occasionally, the date of death, retirement, termination of service, or transfer to another post is noted.
The Department's central files also contain documentation relating to individuals.
1789-1906: Despatches received by the Department of State from its diplomatic and consular officers abroad are arranged by country (diplomatic despatches) or city (consular despatches) and thereunder chronologically. Those reports, especially near the beginning or end of a person's service in an overseas position, sometimes include personal information about the officer or his subordinates. All of these records have been microfilmed.
1906-1910: The Numerical and Minor Files include documentation relating to the service of diplomatic and consular officials. References to the pertinent file(s) are found in the Card Index to the Numerical and Minor Files or on the first page of the Purport Lists for the "123" files described under the heading on the 1910-63 records.
1910-1963: Within the Central Decimal File, the file category "123" contains personnel-type documentation on individuals serving in the Foreign Service. Some files for the period through 1944 are arranged according to a cutter file number made up of a combination of letters and numbers (i.e. "123 St 41"); other earlier and all later files are simply arranged alphabetically by name (i.e. "123 Stewart, Nathaniel B."). Other file categories of an administrative nature may include documentation on personnel, too.
1963-1973: Within the Subject-Numeric File, there are two basic files containing personnel-type documentation on individuals serving in the Foreign Service. The file "PER [Name]," arranged alphabetically, contains documentation relating to individuals and the file category "PER [Post name]" includes documentation on the personnel of a given post. For the most part, these files are very small.
Record Group 84: Records of Foreign Service Posts of the Department of State
Passport Applications. The records of some Foreign Service Posts for the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries include separate series of records consisting of copies of passport applications for passports issued at those posts.
For the period 1912-1948, passport applications were placed in File 130 (Citizenship of the U.S.) in post files. That file was not designated for preservation in the National Archives, but on rare occasions some records from that file were bound with other file categories designated for preservation and are thus in the National Archives. None of the post passport application files after 1948 are preserved.
Visa Applications. For the period 1912-1948, visa applications were placed in File 811.11 (Visas) in post files. That file was not designated for preservation in the National Archives, but on rare occasions some records from that file were bound with other file categories designated for preservation and are thus in the National Archives. None of the post visa application files after 1948 are preserved.
Birth Reports. For the period 1912-1948, birth reports were placed in File 131 (Children born to American parents temporarily residing abroad) in post files. That file was not designated for preservation in the National Archives, but on rare occasions some records from that file were bound with other file categories designated for preservation and are thus in the National Archives. None of the post birth report files after 1948 are preserved.
Marriage Reports. For the period 1912-1948, marriage reports were placed in File 132 (Marriage of American citizens abroad) in post files. That file was not designated for preservation in the National Archives, but on rare occasions some records from that file were bound with other file categories designated for preservation and are thus in the National Archives. None of the post marriage report files after 1948 are preserved.
Death Reports. For the period 1912-1948, documentation on deaths was placed in File 330 (Deaths and estates) in post files. None of the post death and estate files after 1948 are preserved.
The Official Register of the United States includes information on employees of the Department of State. This publication was first published in 1816 as the Register of Officials and Agents and published every other year thereafter until the 1920s. The inclusiveness and presentation of information changed over time.
The Biographic Register published by the Department of State between 1860 and 1974 includes entries for all employees of the Department, both in headquarters and serving abroad. Entries include basic biographic information as well as details on assignments.
See also the Department of State website Principal Officers of the Department of State and United States Chiefs of Mission. This website includes organizational, alphabetical, and chronological listings of persons who served in various positions in the Department of State and overseas.
Official Personnel Files
Official Personnel Files for Department of State and Foreign Service employees whose service ended before 1952 are located in the National Archives at St. Louis.
Official Personnel Files for Department of State and Foreign Service employees whose service ended after 1951 are located in the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis. Those records are in the legal custody of the Office of Personnel Management which controls access.
For general information on Official Personnel Files for civilian personnel, see here