The records of the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives contain a vast and relatively under-used wealth of family history and local history information.
Congress is generally associated with public policy matters, budgets, and treaties. And yet the eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and early twentieth-century records of Congress contain detailed descriptions of the lives, families, activities, and possessions of hundreds of thousands of private individuals.
Private claims records make up a significant portion of the total documentation of Congress from 1789 to World War II. More than 500,000 private claims were brought before Congress between 1789 and 1909, and many thousands more since that date.
Claims can be found in the records of the House and Senate by means of a petition or memorial from the claimant, or as a bill or resolution. It’s not unusual to find that documentation relating to a claim has been charged out of the records of one Congress to be used as supporting materials for a claim submitted at a later Congress or to the Court of Claims.
The best starting point to research private claims are the claims indexes, which were published as part of the Serial Set and list all the claims introduced on the floor of the House and Senate for about the first 60 Congresses. The indexes are listed on our website on the page regarding Records of the Claims Committee in the House Guide.
These indexes generally provide the name of the claimant, the nature of the claim, the committee of referral, Congress and session, the number and nature of the report, the bill number, disposition in the other House, and date of the act. There are unfortunately no comparable consolidated indexes for 20th century claims -- although you can always search the House and Senate Journals. The House and Senate Journals are the official record of proceedings of each legislative day and includes a record of all official actions taken by each chamber.
More information on how to search the records of Congress for private claims can be found in these excellent Prologue Magazine articles available on NARA’s website:
- Deeben, John P. “A Final Appeal to Capitol Hill: The U.S. House’s Accompanying Papers File, 186501903,” (Spring 2007).
- Naylor, Chris. “Those Elusive Early Americans: Public Lands and Claims in the American State Papers, 1789-1837,” (Summer 2005).
- Schamel, Charles E. “Untapped Resources: Private Claims and Private Legislation in the Records of the U.S. Congress,” (Spring 1995).