Records of Federal Employees

The following article was written by my good friend, William Dollarhide. Enjoy…

Dollarhide’s Genealogy Rule No. 15: The genealogy book you just found out about went out of print last week.

If you have reason to believe your ancestor was ever an employee of the United States Federal Government, there are some special records that should confirm that fact. Back when the Federal Government was small, it was possible to list the names of every employee annually, or at least every two years. For federal employees whose service ended from about 1910 forward, a personnel file may still exist. Or, a record of an employment application may still be available, for example, for any person who wanted to become a postmaster, customs agent, or perhaps work for the Navy as a longshoreman. And, special biographical directories exist for any member of Congress since 1774. Here are the basic sources:

Official Registers (Blue Books)
The first Register of Officials and Agents was published by the State Department in 1816. The Official Register, which was more often called the Blue Book, was published annually or bi-annually from 1816 to 1907 in the same basic form. It tabulated the data for officials and employees by department. From 1877 forward, the books included a name index. For each federal employee, whether civilian or military, the Blue Book gave the person’s name, office, place of birth, place of appointment, place employed, and financial compensation. The Register listings are very complete, from department heads to custodial staff members. There may be many more editions available online at various locations, but as an example, the original 1816 edition is online at Google Books. See

The Registers give a picture of the growth of the Federal Government, showing the numbers of employees in 1816 as 6,327, while the 1907 Register listed the names of 349,000 federal employees. In 1921 the Census Bureau published the last comprehensive Register listing all employees in the Civil Service. After 1921, the Register listed only those civil servants in administrative positions, and in 1959 the publication was discontinued altogether.

The National Archives in Washington, DC has complete sets of the Registers from 1816 through 1921. Copies of certain years of the Registers may also be found at the Library of Congress. The registers for the years 1816-1832 were combined and published privately. Also, visit the Library of Congress website at — then “Search the Online Catalog” to find more information about Registers available there. Use the keywords “Official Register” (which should give you hundreds of entries, some of which are state blue books, institutional registers, and even military cadet rosters).

Civilian Personnel Records
The Civilian Records Facility of the National Personnel Records Center is located in St. Louis, Missouri. This facility holds personnel records for federal employees whose employment ended after about 1910. Records less than 75 years old are not open to the public unless the subject is deceased. Copies of personnel and medical files for a federal employee can be requested by providing, in writing, the person’s full name, approximate date of birth, social security number (if known), name of agency where last employed, and the approximate date of employment.

Most records relating to civilian employees give a full name, position held, agency, and place and dates of employment. Some also show state, territory, or country of birth; age; place from which appointed; and salary. Visit their website at for more information. The first webpage is for frequently asked questions.

Applications and Recommendations
Whether your ancestor worked for the federal government or not, he may have made an application for employment. Or better yet, he may have been recommended to serve in some federal post. Several of the federal departments have retained the letters of application and recommendations relating to appointments to federal office. The application letters may contain as much or more genealogical information than an official personnel file, because the applicant may have given considerable information towards successful employment, such as name, age, birthplace, political affiliation, family information, recommendations from friends and neighbors, testimonials, and more.

For the State Department, for example, these application letters and recommendations are organized by a particular Presidential administration, and thereafter alphabetical by the applicant’s name. The application papers from Presidential administrations from George Washington to Ulysses S. Grant have been microfilmed and a descriptive booklet for each administration lists all the names of persons for whom application/recommendation papers exist. To determine if a person’s application is included, one must know the name of the President in office at the time of the application, then request a copy of the descriptive booklet from the National Archives, record group 59, to see if a person’s name is on the list. Similar files exist for the Department of the Treasury, record group 56; the Department of Justice, record group 60; and the Department of the Interior, record group 48. A quick way to get more information about the Department of State, Treasury, Justice, or Interior department records is to use a Google keyword search. For example, a Google search for “National Archives Record Group 59,” should take you directly to the online webpage, “Guide to Federal Records, General Records of the Department of State, Record Group 59, 1756-1993, Table of Contents . . .

Members of Congress
For information about senators and representatives in Congress, the most readily available source is the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, 1774-Present. The Directory is updated every few years, and with the interest of historians and genealogists in mind, the biographies are full of detailed family information for every member of Congress who has ever served since the 1st Congress of 1774. The latest update was published online, and includes over 12,000 individuals who have served in the national legislature, including the Continental Congress, the Senate, and the House of Representatives. See This is the search screen, where you can search for a last name, first name, position, state, party, or year/Congress. A capsule hit list of persons will appear plus brief info about his/her service in Congress. A click on the person’s name will take you to a picture/photograph and short biography of the person. The online version of the Directory has shorter bios, and briefer bibliographies, while the full, printed version may have several pages of biographical information – and more genealogical details. The latest (January 2006) full printed version is available from the Government Printing Office Bookstore,, as a mail order purchase (2,236 pages, $99.00). Or, try using Google Books to find a recent full printed copy online. You may also find the latest full printed version on Amazon is always a good place to see if there are used copies of books available, earlier editions, etc., sometimes for drastically lower prices.

A very good description and history of the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress can be found on Wikipedia. See

Dollarhide’s Genealogy Rule No. 43: If you can remember your ancestor’s marriage dates but not your own, you are probably an addicted genealogist.

2 thoughts on “Records of Federal Employees

  1. You might mention that in the volumes for 1816 through 1825, state or country of birth is given in the register books. As many of these local postmasters and other employees were older men, they often did not live to appear in the 1850 census, the first census thatgave place of birth. See my article “Some Supplements and Substitutes for Census Records.” Georgia Genealogical Society Quarterly 46 (5) (Winter 2011): 331-36.

  2. I would believe anything Robert S. Davis said about Georgia – he kind of owns Georgia’s history, even though he fled years ago to Alabama. But this time, Bob, you didn’t read my article closely. . . I did mention that the Register books included a place of birth (but not “state or country.” That’s OK, I love it when the best genealogists read my columns. -bill$hide

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