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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

A visit to the National Archives, The American people's library

By Emily Mitchell/Washington

April 12, 1999
Web posted at: 12:09 p.m. EDT (1609 GMT)

TIME magazine

Early on a misty winter morning, Corinne Konecny, 39, takes the elevator to the microfilm-research room on the fourth floor of the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington. She is looking for her great-great-grandfather, whose name was Solomon Seif.

A cousin who just located Solomon Seif's burial place in Galion, Ohio, noticed on the gravestone that he had been a Civil War soldier. Konecny made note of that on a scrap of yellow legal-pad paper, and now she is spending a day at the Archives. She has been working on her German and French-Canadian family tree for 10 years, determined "to take all my family on both sides back to where they came from."

Sooner or later, almost every genealogical hunt leads past the tall columns of the National Archives on Pennsylvania Avenue. On one side of the building are the grand documents of democracy: the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. On the other side are the commonplace but invaluable records of the 272 million people who make up that democracy: census schedules from 1790 through 1920, military records from the Revolution to the start of World War I, passport applications going back to 1795, documents from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, ships' passenger lists. Since they were created by bureaucrats for bureaucrats, cautions NARA archivist Constance Potter, "a novice can have trouble."

A staff member leads Konecny to Drawer No. 44 of a large steel cabinet. Inside are microfilmed lists of Ohio Civil War regiments. Konecny sits at one of the 97 viewing stations and within a few minutes finds a faded entry showing that Solomon Seif served as a private in Company I of the 136th Infantry. From a second reel about Company I, she learns that as a 20-year-old farmer, he enlisted for 100 days in 1864, shortly before the war ended, and in 1885 he applied for a pension as an invalid.

The Archives also stores individual pension records, she is told. Would she like to see if Seif had one? "Oh, yes," Konecny replies, her face lighting up. She fills out the appropriate forms and, after the requisite two-hour wait, enters the high-ceilinged central research room, where she is presented with a thick brown folder that had been stored with more than a million other original military pension records.

From letters to the War Department, she reads that his company had been sent from Ohio to Fort Ellsworth in Virginia, not far from where she now sits. Seif landed in the hospital with an illness called camp fever; he never returned to his regiment. "When he came home, he looked like a dead boy," declared the affidavit of an Ohio friend. For years after the war, Seif wrote to Washington requesting a pension increase, complaining of neuralgia, lumbago, catarrh, headaches and heart trouble. By 1927, the year he died, Seif was receiving $90 a month, an amount granted, according to notes from a nameless bureaucrat, because he was blind and totally helpless. "I didn't know that," says Konecny, shaking her head sadly. Turning over the last papers, she sees in the place marked for her great-great-grandfather's signature a large X made in black ink by a trembling hand. For a moment, she has a glimpse back into her family's past.


Cover Date: April 19, 1999

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