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Genealogy: Records & Resources

A guide to useful records and various resources available at the BPL and beyond.

Searching for U.S. Military Records

Military records can offer a fuller picture of an ancestor’s life. As largely government produced records, they are also fairly easily accessible if you know where to look. This section will hopefully provide a starting point.

What you should have before you start searching:

  1. The name of the person you are researching
  2. The state in which they enlisted or were drafted from
  3. The approximate dates of their service
  4. A clear idea of what kind of records you are looking for (i.e. a complete personnel file, an enlistment record, a draft card, etc...)

Useful things to know:

For conflicts taking place on U.S. soil (i.e. the Revolutionary War), cities/towns with any significant ties to military action will often have their own collections related to the conflict. It may be worthwhile to try contacting local libraries or historical societies in such places to see what they have.

Depending on the time period you are researching, you may or may not be able to access certain records. Access to records for anyone who is still living are generally restricted to the person who served and their next of kin.

If you know the name of the unit your ancestor or relative served in, a Google search may turn up unit histories online that could contain useful information.

Ancestry Library Edition contains numerous collections of military records including draft registration cards, military headstone applications, enlistment records, and more.

American Ancestors includes collections of veterans' lists, pension records, and other published records.

Newspapers often carried news of war including casualty lists, enlistment information, and news of troop movements.

Military Registers

In 2007, the Austin/Kahle Foundation in association with the Omidyar Network, gave the Boston Public Library a grant totaling $500,000 to digitize government documents in its collections. Included among the collections that were digitized are several sets of military registers.

The War Department, later the Department of Defense, published registers of officers in each branch of the armed forces. The Boston Public Library's collections also includes registers for the Air Force and Coast Guard that have not been digitized.

Full title: A Register of Officers and Agents, Civil, Military, and Naval in the Service of the United States. This was an overall directory of officers in the federal government. These items are originally from the John Adams Collection. Record in the BPL’s online catalog can be found here and here.

These Registers are an alphabetical list of officers in the United States Army. The listings include active and retired officers. For active officers, their place (state or country) and date of birth are listed, as is their place of enlistment and achievements in higher education. Finally, their record of promotions while in the service are given. The records for retired officers are not as detailed. In later years, there are supplementary volumes for the Army of the United States (volume 2) and Officers Honorary Retired Lists (volume 3).

Records for some of these volumes can be found in the BPL's online catalog here and here.

Full title: Navy Directory: Officers of the United States Navy and Marine Corps.These registers list the officers and provides information such as registers of ships and the roster of officers on the ships.

The record can be found in the BPL's online catalog here.

National Archives

The National Archives can in many cases be the best place to get military records for those who served in the U.S. Armed Forces. A limited amount of records are available on their website, and physical records are kept at their facilities in Washington, D.C. (service prior to 1917) and St. Louis, Missouri (service from 1917-present.) Requests for records can be made online, via mail, or in person.

Records of individuals who left service 62 years ago or more are considered public record and can be requested by anyone. Complete records of individuals who left service less than 62 years ago can only be requested by the individual themselves or, if they are deceased, their next-of-kin. Next-of-kin is defined as the un-remarried widow or widower, son, daughter, father, mother, brother, or sister of the deceased veteran.

Important Note:
A fire at the St. Louis facility in 1973 destroyed millions of personnel files, including most records for those who served in the Army in WWI and WWII. More information about the fire and the destroyed records is available here.

Colonial Wars

Site of Nine Men's Misery, Cumberland RI (2007, Wikimedia Commons)



Numerous conflicts with Native Americans and other European countries made war a fact of life during much of the colonial era. Records from this time period can be scarce, and many may be housed overseas and hard to access. The resources in this section focus primarily on records available in Massachusetts although some records from other states are included.

Some of the wars involving residents of Massachusetts include but are not necessarily limited to the following:

Pequot War, 1636–1638
King Philip's War, 1675–1678
King William's War, 1688–1697
Queen Anne's War, 1702–1713
Dummer's War, 1722–1725
War of Jenkins' Ear, 1739-1748

French and Indian War, 1754–1763

Unless otherwise noted, all books are located in Bates Hall on the second floor of the Central Library in Copley Square.

Revolutionary War

Record keeping during the Revolutionary War era was notoriously spotty, so some records may be difficult or impossible to find. The resources noted in this section focus primarily on Massachusetts records although other states are included. Many of these resources were compiled through the efforts of volunteers, sometimes many years (or decades) after the end of the war.

Image Credit:
Bunker Hill Monument, 221 Feet in Height, Charlestown, Mass.
BPL Print Department, The Tichnor Brothers Collection

This list focuses on books available in Bates Hall, located on the second floor of the Central Library in Copley Square. Check our online catalog for books available in other departments.

American Civil War

A concerted effort to keep records began during the war itself, with compilations of records being published not long after. Organizations, such as the Grand Army of the Republic, began forming almost immediately after the war ended and also aided in the preservation of records. The resources noted in this section focus primarily on Massachusetts records although other states are included, as are resources for researching Confederate ancestors in addition to Union ancestors.

Image Credit:
Soldiers and Sailors Monument, Boston Commons, Boston, Massachusetts, USA.
11 July 2010
Via Wikimedia Commons

This list focuses on books available in Bates Hall, located on the second floor of the Central Library in Copley Square. Check our online catalog for books available in other departments

The BPL also holds many published regimental histories, you can see a listing of them in our online catalog here.

The World Wars

A fire at the National Personnel Records Center in 1973 destroyed about 80% of records for those discharged from their service in the U.S. Army between November 1, 1912 and January 1, 1960. This unfortunately includes the records of many people who served in WWI and WWII. There is no comprehensive listing of what records were lost, so the only way to determine whether or not a record still exists is to request a copy of it.

Resources covered in this section include records from both the National Archives and elsewhere, and are not organized by state. The BPL does not itself hold any published records for WWI and WWII such as what is available for some earlier wars. 

Image Credit:
State War Memorial Beacon, Summit of Mt. Greylock -- Elevation Mt. Greylock 3,505 ft., Beacon 110 ft.
BPL Print Department, The Tichnor Brothers Collection