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Not your everyday source

He was born in Illinois in 1831, became a lawyer there in 1854, and answered the call of duty in 1861, soon coming under the command of a man who had raised a regiment from Illinois. That commander was Ulysses S. Grant, and the Illinois lawyer was John Aaron Rawlins.

John Aaron Rawlins

Rawlins served with Grant throughout the war, and was Chief of Staff of the Army of the Tennessee, Chief of Staff of the Military Division of the Mississippi, promoted quickly to Brigadier General, and ultimately served as Chief of Staff of the General Headquarters of the United States Army. He didn’t return to Illinois when the war ended, but stayed with Grant, becoming his Secretary of War when Grant took office as President in March of 1869.

But Rawlins’ tenure as Secretary of War was cut short. He was diagnosed with tuberculosis and refused to leave Washington, D.C., or Grant’s service. On the 6th of September 1869, Rawlins died in Washington and was buried in the Congressional Cemetery there.1

But Rawlins’ remains today are not buried at the Congressional Cemetery. Nearly 30 years later, during the administration of William McKinley, two Executive Orders were entered that tell the story of what happened to the remains of John Aaron Rawlins. Executive orders 112 and 113, signed 8 February 1899 by J.A. Porter, Secretary to the President, allowed government employees who were members of the Grand Army of the Republic to take a half-holiday and directed that the flag be flown at half-mast for the removal of the remains of Gen. John A. Rawlins from Washington’s Congressional Cemetery to Arlington National Cemetery.2

So… what the heck are Executive Orders anyway? According to the National Archives, “Executive orders are official documents, numbered consecutively, through which the President of the United States manages the operations of the Federal Government.”3 True, today, but executive orders have been issued since 1789, and early orders didn’t carry any consecutive numbers. In fact, it wasn’t until 1907 that a numbering system was put into effect, retroactive to one of Lincoln’s orders from 1862.4

And an even better question: of what the heck use are Executive Orders to genealogists?

Oh… let’s see here. Maybe you’re descended from one of the many African Americans who were employed as contrabands — slaves who’d gotten to Union lines from the States of Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, and Arkansas — and whose employment at reasonable wages for their labor was authorized by an Executive Order of 22 July 1862.5

Maybe one of your ancestors was able to get a good-paying job with the Federal Government without graft or corruption because of the adoption of the Civil Service system rules by an Executive Order of Ulysses S. Grant in 1872.6

Maybe you descend from Joseph Scott, or R. P. Colbert, or John Barringer of Montana, and you wonder how they managed to hang onto their land when the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation was created. The answer is in a 19 March 1900 Executive Order by William McKinley that created the reservation … but excepted and excluded the lands of those individuals.7

Maybe one of your relatives was Edward A. Gisburne, who ended up working for the Post Office in Boston around 1914. Looking at the Executive Orders, you’d find that on 29 October 1914, Executive Order 2070 made Edward A. Gisburne eligible for appointment as a classified employee without consideration of physical disability.8 It turns out that Gisburne had been a messenger boy working for the Navy Department but resigned to join the Navy. He was wounded in the line of duty, and awarded a medal of honor.9

Maybe one of your relatives was a nurse by the name of Agnes Deery. On 11 May 1915, Executive Order 2192 made her eligible for appointment as a nurse in the Indian Service without examination.10 She’d been working for years as a nurse for the Apache Indian Hospital at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and when her duties there ended, the Indian Service wanted to hire her right away.11

Or maybe you’re related to Edward or Enna Wilson Noel. That same 11th day of May 1915, Executive Order 2191 allowed the War Department to hire Enna Wilson Noel as a clerk after the death of her husband, Edward, who’d worked in the Surgeon General’s office for nearly 33 years.12 The Civil Service Commission didn’t like that at all, even though not approving Enna’s request would have left her essentially destitute.13

Anybody in your family live in the Panama Canal Zone? On 5 September 1916, regulations for licensing and operating motor vehicles in the Panama Canal Zone were imposed by Executive Order 2451.14 Anybody work in censorship of messages during the First World War? On 28 April 1917, by Executive Order 2604, the Navy Department was given control over submarine cables and the War Department of telegraph and telephone lines in order to provide for censorship.15 Construction worker in Washington, D.C.? On 24 May 1918, Executive Order 2865 suspended the eight-hour workday for workers doing construction of buildings for St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C.16

Ever wonder why a family member who’d served in World War I ended up homesteading way out west after the war? Maybe it had something to do with the fact that, on September 26, 1922, a trio of executive orders opened up what had been part of three national forests — Jefferson National Forest in Montana, Leadville National Forest in Colorado, and Deerlodge National Forest in Montana — to homesteading, with only qualified ex-service men who’d served in the First World War eligible to apply for the first 91 days the lands were open.17

Did anybody in your family have to turn in gold coins during the Depression? In part, it was because, on 5 April 1933, Executive Order 6102 declared a continued national emergency in banking, prohibited the hoarding of gold and required the delivery of gold coins to Federal Reserve Banks.18

Was your family, like mine, living in rural America during the Depression… and end up having the lights literally turned on when electric power finally reached them? You can chalk that up in large measure to the fact that, on 11 May 1935, the Rural Electrification Administration was established by Executive Order 7037.19

Were any members of your family affected by the forced relocation and internment of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War? Put the blame on Executive Order 9066, signed by President Roosevelt on 19 February 1942.20

Got the picture? These things are pure gold. Now you can poke around in these Executive Orders the way I did for the years 1862-1938, or you can do it the easy way: there’s a published Index for those years, including subjects and all individual names that appear in those orders.21 There are, for example, 11 Executive Orders involving people with the surname of Baker,22 13 involving those surnamed Hamilton,23 and 22 involving people surnamed Williams.24

For more recent Executive Orders, from 1945-1989, the National Archives has put online the Federal Register’s Codification of Presidential Proclamations and Executive Orders, and a more comprehensive overall collection is online at the American Presidency Project of the University of California at Santa Barbara. Its collection of Executive Orders begins with the Executive Orders of 1826 announcing the deaths of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams and runs through President Obama’s October 2012 Executive Order 13629 Establishing the White House Homeland Security Partnership Council.

And you can read more about Executive Orders generally in Barbara Bavis’ Executive Orders: A Beginner’s Guide25 posted this week in one of The Legal Genealogist‘s favorite blogs, In Custodia Legis: Law Librarians of Congress. And take a look at the Executive Orders FAQ’s from the National Archives too.

Presidential Executive Orders as genealogical resources. Who’d have thunk it?


Image: Matthew Brady, 1865; Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

  1. Wikipedia (, “John Aaron Rawlins,” rev. 21 Nov 2012.
  2. Clifford L. Lord, ed., Presidential Executive Orders Numbered 1-8030 1862-1938, Volume 1 (New York : Books, Inc., 1944), 12; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 27 Nov 2012).
  3. Executive Orders FAQ’s,” Federal Register, National Archives ( : accessed 27 Nov 2012).
  4. Wikipedia (, “Executive Order,” rev. 13 Nov 2012.
  5. Abraham Lincoln, “Executive Order – Authorizing Employment of “Contrabands”,” July 22, 1862, The American Presidency Project ( : accessed 27 Nov 2012).
  6. Ibid., Ulysses S. Grant, “Executive Order,” April 16, 1872.
  7. Ibid., William McKinley, “Executive Order – Northern Cheyenne Reserve, Montana,” March 19, 1900.
  8. Lord, ed., Presidential Executive Orders…, Vol. 1, 176.
  9. S. Doc. 544, 64th Congress, 1st session, (1916) 20.
  10. Lord, ed., Presidential Executive Orders…, Vol. 1, 185.
  11. S. Doc. 544, 22.
  12. Lord, ed., Presidential Executive Orders…, Vol. 1, 185.
  13. S. Doc. 544, 45.
  14. Lord, ed., Presidential Executive Orders…, Vol. 1, 206.
  15. Ibid., 218.
  16. Ibid., 241.
  17. Ibid. at 314, Executive Orders 3738, 3739 and 3740, 26 Sep 1922.
  18. Ibid., 506.
  19. Ibid., 597.
  20. Wikipedia (, “Executive Order 9066,” rev. 5 Nov 2012.
  21. Clifford L. Lord, ed., Presidential Executive Orders Numbered 1-8030 1862-1938, Volume 2 (New York : Books, Inc., 1944); digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 27 Nov 2012).
  22. Ibid., 39.
  23. Ibid., 241-242
  24. Ibid., 615-616.
  25. Barbara Bavis, “Executive Orders: A Beginner’s Guide,” In Custodia Legis: Law Librarians of Congress, posted 26 Nov 2012 ( : accessed 27 Nov 2012).
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