“It ain’t necessarily so”
Just because you read it on the internet doesn’t mean it’s true.
That’s the lesson The Legal Genealogist was reminded of, again, this week when it turns out that something that’s repeated in many places on the internet simply isn’t true.
If you read the entry in the National Archives Catalog for the Bankruptcy Case File of John A. Racer, Case File # 44 from the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia, it tells you that you can find it at National Archives (NARA) in Philadelphia — the regional facility where Virginia federal court records are held.1
Or if you read the article by published in Prologue, the National Archives magazine, in the fall of 2014 on bankruptcy records, it’ll tell you that: “The National Archives facility maintaining the federal records for a particular state will have the bankruptcy records from the courts in that location.”2
Um … Not so.
Or if you check the online Guide to Federal Records in the National Archives of the United States, it’ll tell you that the case files for the United States District Court for the District of Alaska are NARA Seattle. 3
Um … No, they’re not.
It turns out that all the bankruptcy case files from all around the nation have been moved to one central location. They’re now at NARA Kansas City.
This surfaced after Tuesday night’s webinar, “NARA Nuggets: Genealogy in the Archives,” for the Association of Professional Genealogists where, based on what I had just reviewed on the NARA website in the days before the webinar, I confidently told a fellow APG member that he could get a bankruptcy case file for an ancestor who’d filed in South Carolina at the National Archives in Atlanta.
When he called Atlanta to check, he was told all those case file records had been moved.4
Archivist Jennifer Audsley-Moore at NARA’s Kansas City regional archives confirms that the bankruptcy case files held by NARA are now centralized there in Kansas City. The effort to move them began in 2015, and was completed sometime last year. So requests for a copy of a bankruptcy case file are now being processed in Kansas City.
That’s the easy part. What’s a little more complicated is making sure the NARA catalog reflects the change.
“There are thousands of records that have to be reviewed and updated and, in many cases, it’s more than just a location change,” she explained. “There is additional information, like a series description, that needs to be added or changed as well.”
So far, about two-thirds to three-fourths of the catalog entries have been updated, but that leaves a very large number remaining to be done.
So… what’s a genealogist to do?
First, try to confirm exactly when and where the bankruptcy case you’re interested in was filed. Audsley-Moore notes that not all 19th century bankruptcy cases would have gone to federal court because the laws of that century tended to be temporary. “If someone is searching for a bankruptcy case file between the major acts (1800, 1841, 1867, 1898) it is possible it was filed in a state or county court,” she says. But checking the newspapers of the day is a great way to determine that, yes, Great Grandpa really did file for bankruptcy in the federal court in South Carolina.
Second, if you don’t have the case number, contact the NARA regional repository that holds the federal court records for that particular place and time. Remember that not all post-1940 bankruptcy case files are being retained for archival purposes; only a small percentage of the files are being kept, and only the regional repositories have the information now about which ones exist and which ones don’t. (Audsley-Moore hopes that will change, and notes they’re “working on a bankruptcy specific website that will have all of this information in one place.”) The regional branch can do a docket search to verify that there actually is a case file and provide the case number.
Third, with the case number, contact NARA in Kansas City (firstname.lastname@example.org) and ask for a check of the case file. You’ll get a report back by email telling you if the file can be found, how many pages it has and what it’ll cost to order it.
Oh, and fourth?
Don’t believe everything you read on the internet.
Image: Affidavit of publication, In the Matter of Edward Jacobson, Bankruptcy Act of 1898 Case Files, 1898 – 1950, Records of District Courts of the United States, 1685 – 2009; National Archives, Kansas City; digital images, Archives.gov (https://www.archives.gov/ : accessed 25 Aug 2017).
- National Archives Catalog, entry for Bankruptcy Case File of John A. Racer, Case File # 44 from the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia, retrieved 24 Aug 2017 using advanced search, Archives.gov (https://www.archives.gov/ : accessed 24 Aug 2017). ↩
- Jake Ersland, “Broke, But Not Out of Luck: Using Bankruptcy Records for Genealogical Research,” Prologue (Fall 2014): 58, 63. ↩
- “Records of District Courts of the United States (Record Group 21),” Guide to Federal Records in the National Archives of the United States, web version, National Archives (https://www.archives.gov/ : accessed 25 Aug 2017). ↩
- A great big tip-of-the-hat to Kelvin L. Meyers of Texas for alerting me, and now you, to this change. ↩