Resources for Genealogists

National Archives Catalog Guide for Genealogists and Family Historians

Using the National Archives Catalog

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Immigrants on a Ferry Boat Near Ellis Island, National Archives Identifier 594479.

For more information on genealogical sources at the National Archives, please visit our Genealogy and Family Historians section and the Start your Genealogy Research page.

What is in the National Archives Catalog?

The National Archives Catalog vs. Online Genealogy Databases

  • The catalog is keyword searchable like many genealogy databases.
  • You can narrow searches with filters.
  • The catalog allows you to search for records in all NARA facilities – not just selected databases.
  • The current focus is on breadth of NARA's holdings (at the series level) and not individual records. (See the the Description Data Model Example for more explanation about series.)
  • Most series are not indexed by individual names.

The National Archives Catalog contains descriptions for NARA's nationwide holdings in the Washington, DC area; regional facilities; and Presidential Libraries. The catalog is a work in progress and currently contains descriptions for 95% of our records.

Keep in mind that the catalog does not contain descriptions for all files and items that include individuals' names; however, the National Archives still might have records about your ancestors.

The online catalog contains many descriptions of records of interest to genealogists and family historians, including:

  • applications for enrollment in Native American tribes
  • court records
  • fugitive slave cases
  • land records
  • military personnel records
  • naturalization records

See more general information about what is in the National Archives Catalog.

Description Data Model Example: District Court Records

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Data model


  • All district court records held by the National Archives are in the same record group
    • Records of District Courts of the United States (Record Group 21)
  • Within that record group are series of records
    • Admiralty Case Files, 1790 - 1966
    • Civil Case Files, 1938 - 1967
    • Criminal Case Files, 1791 - 1970
  • Within the series you have file units (one for each court case)
    • United States versus Henry Sims, #68 August Session 1851, 10/24/1851
    • United States versus Samuel Williams etal., #159 August Session 1851
  • Within the file units you have individual documents (items)
    • Indictment of Samuel Williams
    • Lists of Witnesses and the Jury


How Do I Search in the National Archives Catalog?

The online catalog contains descriptions of records held by the National Archives. Researchers can conduct keyword searches and filtered searched in the catalog.

To perform a simple keyword search:

  1. Go to
  2. Enter [some keywords of your choice] in the Keywords box in the center of the page. For example: “bounty land”
  3. Press the Search button.
  4. When hits are returned for your search, the results will be grouped in categories – online holdings and/or description only. Select "View all Online Holdings" or "View all Description Only".
  5. In either category, view the full result of your hit by selecting the Title link.

Tips for Searching for an Individual's Name

  • Search on the person's full name in first name-last name order.
  • Search on the surname only. The records might only include a first initial or a variant spelling of the first name.
  • Search on variant spellings of the surname, for example: Luchetti OR Lucetti.
  • Search on variant spellings of the first name, including "Americanized" versions, for example: Joseph Maggio OR Guiseppe Maggio.
  • Keep in mind that the National Archives Catalog does not contain descriptions for all file units and items that include individuals' names. However, the National Archives still might have records about your ancestors.




Tips for Searching by Topics Related to Genealogy and Family History in the National Archives Catalog

One of the best ways to identify records of interest in the National Archives Catalog is by topic. If you find a series or file unit in the National Archives Catalog that may contain records about your ancestor, contact the staff at that unit. The contact information appears in the "Location" field of the ARC description.

Suggested Keywords

As a starting point, click on the links in the "View National Archives Catalog Descriptions" column below. The links open a new browser window with Search Results. See Tips for National Archives Catalog Searches

Topics View ARC Descriptions
African Americans
Court Records
Japanese Americans
Native Americans



Follow the Clues!

The family history research you already compiled could contain valuable clues. Use these clues to identify National Archives records that would be useful to your research and go beyond the most common genealogical sources.

Three examples:

Clue: A significant decrease in income appears when you compare your ancestor's net worth between the 1860 Census and 1870 Census.
Records Worth Checking: Bankruptcy court records might contain a file on your ancestor. The Bankruptcy Act of 1867 allowed greater numbers of people to file for voluntary bankruptcy. Search in the National Archives Catalog for bankruptcy AND [state where you ancestor lived at the time].

Clue: You find a passenger list with your ancestor's name on it, and there is a Board of Special Inquiry stamp.
Records Worth Checking: The records of an Immigration and Naturalization Service inquiry might exist for your ancestor. Records related to deportation are also a possibility. Search in the National Archives Catalog for immigration AND "special inquiry".

Clue: Your ancestor was tried for a crime.
Records Worth Checking: A criminal case file might exist for the U.S. District Court in the state where your ancestor committed the crime. If your ancestor served a sentence in a Federal prison, there might be an inmate case file in the records of that Federal prison. Search in the National Archives Catalog for "criminal case" OR inmate.

Are There Any Digital Copies of Documents?

Now you can order many records online (including census pages, court records, naturalization records, military service and pension records, and World War I draft registration cards).

Yes, the catalog contains digital copies of selected documents. We have about 17 million digital copies available and we continue to add more daily.
Read more about: Why aren't all Federal Archived Records Online?