The United States Constitution went into effect in June 1788, when New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify it. The first U.S. Congress was seated in March 1789 and on April 30 George Washington was inaugurated as the first president. The new constitution provided that the president would be responsible for conducting the nation’s foreign relations. It quickly became obvious that he would need help in these endeavors.
On July 21 Congress passed a law creating the Department of Foreign Affairs. Washington signed it on July 27, creating the first federal agency in America. Two months later the name was changed to the Department of State, which name it continues under today. On September 29 Washington appointed the minister to France as the first secretary of state. His name was Thomas Jefferson.
We often think of the Department of State in terms of foreign policy, treaties, peacekeeping, etc. For genealogists, however, the records created by this agency are invaluable. Starting with State being responsible for overseeing the taking of the first U.S. censuses (before this responsibility was turned over to the Department of the Interior in the 19th century).
Among the pertinent responsibilities of the State Department are protecting and assisting U.S. citizens abroad and assisting U.S. businesses in the international marketplace. It does this through a network of Foreign Service personnel who work around the world.
Now many people think that their families never interacted with State. “My family was too poor to go anywhere, let alone a foreign country.” But you would be surprised how many families were touched by records in the department.
For example, did your naturalized ancestor ever go back to his/her native land to visit? If they needed help when they were in the homeland, there may be a record in the records of the department of state. Were your ancestors merchant sailors? Again, there may be records for you at State.
Countless individuals served as Christian missionaries during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Each and every one of them likely had contact with State at one time or another during their travels, for their passports and visas if for no other reason. This doesn’t even begin to include the number of people who worked in foreign service positions in consulates and embassies around the world.
One of the most valuable sets of records from State are the consular records. These were regular reports from the ambassadors, consuls, and their staffs regarding American citizens. They contain information on who they assisted and how.
Most of the records are unindexed. Usually, however, they are systematically organized; first by country, they chronologically. If you have a sense of when and where your ancestor spent time overseas, it may be worth going through these records.
Records of the Department of State are housed at the National Archives and Records Administration. They can be found in in Record Groups 43, 59, 76, 84, and 353. Visit the NARA website to find more information on these records. You’ll be surprised what you might find.