Have you ever wondered what is at your state archives? Tucked away in a corner, could you find a clue to your ancestor’s life? Every state has a physical location that hosts a treasure trove of artifacts, documents, books, and more.
The National Archives provides a list of state archives and don’t despair if you don’t live near the one where you need to research. Many of them are digitizing their collections and making them available on their websites. Some of the state archives will respond to research questions and for others you might have to hire an onsite researcher.
Located in the old Rio Grande Depot in Salt Lake City, Utah, the Utah State Archives had records for my pioneer ancestors I hadn’t yet uncovered.
I started my archive experience at home on my computer reviewing the lives of my Mormon pioneer ancestors. I found that my great, great grandfather, William Creer had been commissioned as an officer in the territorial militia in 1866. A story about his life on FamilySearch told of his experience as a major in the Utah Militia and his adventures in the Black Hawk Indian War. I was curious to see if the Utah State Archives had military records for this time period.
When I looked at the Utah State Archives Website, I saw that some collections have been digitized and put online, but I wanted to find records available only at the physical location. When I browsed their online research guides to get a feel for what record collections were available I saw a military category that interested me. Could William Creer be mentioned in the records?
Each state archive website has a different organizational system. It took a bit of searching before I found that William had an index card for his militia service and a reference to more information held at the archives. What I learned: don’t give up if at first you don’t succeed. I’ve found that some state archive websites are easier than others to decipher. The information you want is there, you just have to figure out how to access it. Sometimes it’s easier to do a Google search for the collection you’re trying to access than using the website’s search engine.
William’s index card gave specific information that I copied down. I also made a list of several other collections that might have information on my ancestors. I noted the archive hours and address and armed with that information, my friend and I embarked on our adventure.
The staff member at the archives was extremely helpful. He guided us every step of the way – even making a copy of my reference information since I had written it on a spiral bound notebook, which was not allowed into the archives. We were only able to take laptop computers, flash drives, and our smart phones into the research center. We stowed the rest of our belongings in the free lockers. The staff supplied paper and pencils for note taking.
Our friendly staff member pulled the microfilm we needed and helped us get started with the equipment. I quickly found the initial territorial militia record referencing William Creer as the “Officer of the day” in the morning report of June 21st, 1866.
The next image on the microfilm gave this interesting morning report of June 26th 1866:
Just before daylight the Picket guard gave the alarm that the Indians were driving off some horses and cattle when six or eight men started in pursuit and found they had gone up the first Kanyon south of Springville Kanyon. The men immediately returned to Guard quarters and reported. When the following named men were detached to pursue them into the Kanyon, viz., Major William Creer, Commanding. . . The above detached Corps pursued the Indians and overtook them about five miles beyond the summit of the Kanyon, where there were about fifteen Indians. When the Indians saw the men they tried to rush the stock below but the men defeated them and took their position on a ridge beyond the Indians and Albert Dimick was detached a Company of Infantry to go and assist Major Creer.”
I saved digital copies of everything to my flash drive so I could transcribe the letters at home and add the information to my files.
The time went by all too quickly, but my friend and I left having a better understanding of the wealth of information available in an archive.
This experience taught me once again, that the online records are still just a small percentage of the records for our ancestors.
If we neglect to check out archives we may be missing the key to our brick wall research or just an opportunity to learn more about their lives.
4 Tips For Visiting An Archive
1. Do your homework before setting foot in the archive. Read through your previous research to determine what you’d like to discover on your research trip. Locate the archive’s online catalogue and write down the specifics of each record collection to search.
2. Plan your trip well. Note the hours, the address, parking and make sure the archive will be open when you plan to visit. Also note what you will be allowed to take into the research area and make sure you are prepared with cash to pay for copies.
3. Make friends with the staff. They know their stuff and will save you valuable time in locating your records.
4. Copy everything, even if you’re not sure you’ll need it. If using paper copies, write the source information on the front of the paper; if making a digital copy, include as much information as possible in the digital file name of the record. Archive collections often go by unwieldy names with lots of numbers, but they are important for your citations.
Best of luck in your research efforts!