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By Order of the President

It was Special Order 503, issued under the authority of President Andrew Johnson on 19 September 1865.

The place affected: Augusta, Georgia, and the military district surrounding that town.

And the topic: the military government the Union had imposed after the end of the Civil War.

Andrew Johnson signature

According to the Executive Order:

…commanders of military posts and districts in Georgia, and particularly Brevet Brigadier-General C. H. Grosvenor, provost-marshal-general, and Brevet Major-General King, commanding in the district of Augusta, have assumed to decide questions of contracts and conflicting claims of property between individuals, and to order the delivery, surrender, or transfer of property and documents of title as between private persons, in which the Government is not concerned.


… Military officers have no authority to interfere in any way in questions of sale or contracts of any kind between individuals or to decide any question of property between them without special instructions from this Department authorizing their action, and the usurpation of such power will be treated as a grave military offense.1

Some years later, it was William Howard Taft’s turn to mention Augusta — where The Legal Genealogist will be speaking Saturday at the Augusta Genealogical Society’s Homecoming — and it was in a Special Message dated 25 June 1910. The Congress had included improvements in “the Savannah River from Augusta to the sea, with a view to its completion within four years” in an appropriations bill, but Taft didn’t think enough money had been appropriated for all the projects listed:

The chief defect in the bill is the large number of projects appropriated for and the uneconomical method of carrying on these projects by the appropriation of sums small in comparison to the amounts required to effect completion.2

He didn’t veto the bill, but he was definitely letting Congress know he wasn’t happy.

These — and thousands of others — are among the Executive Orders of the United States: “…official documents, numbered consecutively, through which the President of the United States manages the operations of the Federal Government.”3 Except of course that sequential numbering system wasn’t started until early in the 20th century and then imposed retroactively only on orders starting with one issued by Abraham Lincoln in 1862.4

Now… these are not exactly routine sources for genealogists — but boy oh boy do they have potential to help flesh out a story.

Maybe you’re descended from one of the many African Americans who were employed as contrabands — enslaved persons 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 January 2017 Executive Order 13758—Amending Executive Order 11016 to Update Eligibility Criteria for Award of the Purple Heart.

And you can read more about Executive Orders generally in Barbara Bavis’ Executive Orders: A Beginner’s Guide25 posted in one of my 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’da thunk it?


  1. Andrew Johnson, “Executive Order—Special Orders: 503,” 19 September 1865; html version online, The American Presidency Project ( : accessed 1 Aug 2018).
  2. Ibid., William Howard Taft, “Special Message,” 25 June 1910.
  3. Executive Orders FAQ’s,” Federal Register, National Archives ( : accessed 1 Aug 2018).
  4. See Wikipedia (, “List of United States federal executive orders,” rev. 20 July 2018.
  5. Abraham Lincoln, “Executive Order – Authorizing Employment of ‘Contrabands’,” July 22, 1862, The American Presidency Project ( : accessed 1 Aug 2018).
  6. Ibid., Ulysses S. Grant, “Executive Order,” April 16, 1872.
  7. Ibid., William McKinley, “Executive Order – Northern Cheyenne Reserve, Montana,” March 19, 1900.
  8. Clifford L. Lord, ed., Presidential Executive Orders Numbered 1-8030 1862-1938, Volume 1 (New York : Books, Inc., 1944), 1: 176; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 1 Aug 2018).
  9. S. Doc. 544, 64th Congress, 1st session, (1916) 20.
  10. Lord, ed., Presidential Executive Orders…, 1: 185.
  11. S. Doc. 544, 22.
  12. Lord, ed., Presidential Executive Orders…, 1: 185.
  13. S. Doc. 544, 45.
  14. Lord, ed., Presidential Executive Orders…, 1: 206.
  15. Ibid., 1: 218.
  16. Ibid., 1: 241.
  17. Ibid. at 1: 314, Executive Orders 3738, 3739 and 3740, 26 Sep 1922.
  18. Ibid., 1: 506.
  19. Ibid., 1: 597.
  20. Wikipedia (, “Executive Order 9066,” rev. 3 July 2018.
  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 1 Aug 2018).
  22. Ibid., 2: 39.
  23. Ibid., 2: 241-242
  24. Ibid., 2: 615-616.
  25. Barbara Bavis, “Executive Orders: A Beginner’s Guide,” In Custodia Legis: Law Librarians of Congress, posted 26 Nov 2012 ( : accessed 1 Aug 2018).
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