Family Tree Friday: Using the Official Register to find Federal employees
Most people who research information about relatives or ancestors who were Federal employees probably don’t make enough use of government publications. So, it might interest you to know that the Federal Government actually produced its own employee directory, the Official Register of the United States, which spans the early 19th to the mid-20th centuries (1817-1959). Available in most U.S. Government depository libraries (including our own Archives Library Information Center at the National Archives) as well as many larger public and university libraries that carry government publications, the Official Register offers information in varying detail about the Federal workforce from the highest level appointments to the average bureau clerk.
On April 27, 1816, Congress authorized publication of the Official Register, to be produced every two years in conjunction with the sitting of each new Congress. The Register contained comprehensive listings of all civilian, military, and naval employees, officers, and agents of the Federal Government, with the lists arranged by department and then by agency, bureau, or office. Congress also required the Secretary of the Navy to provide the names, force, and condition of all ships and vessels belonging to the United States, including when and where they were built. Subsequent acts of Congress expanded the scope of the Register’s content to include the names of all government printers, a statement of monetary allowances to mail contractors from the Postmaster General, as well as correct lists of all presidents, cashiers, and directors of the Bank of the United States and its branches. Other departments, agencies, and bureaus were added to the Register as they were created.
Information about government employees was initially presented in a tabular format, which provided an overall picture of the organizational structure of each department. The tables contained such pertinent information as the employee’s name, job title, state or country of birth, the location of their post, and their annual salary. The military lists provided the names of officers, rank, and place of birth, while the naval lists also included date of commission and current duty station. From 1907 to 1921 the publication opted for a directory format or standard alphabetical listing. Eventually, as the size of the government grew, the Official Register became too large and expensive to publish. The information was scaled back to include only the top-level administrators and supervisors of Executive and Judicial departments until the yearly directory went out of publication in 1959.
As a convenient starting point for genealogy research on civilian employees of the Federal Government, the Official Register of the United States can show, at a glance, whether or not an ancestor worked for the government in a given year, and also identify the department, bureau, or office they served. In many cases, the breakdown of department listings into specific jobs provides additional detail on the nature of work performed. Genealogists can also readily identify the place of birth for most employees, and the Congressional district from which they were appointed. The lists of annual salaries and contractor allowances provide a general picture of the economic conditions under which Federal employees served. Essentially, the Official Register offers an initial snapshot of life as a Federal employee from 1816 to 1959.