"I'll just call my congressman" was once the common refrain when citizens didn't like the shake government had given them.
Even singer Eddie Cochran called on his congressman when he got the "Summertime Blues," but he was rebuffed with, "I'd like to help you, son, but you're too young to vote."
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gave us the right to petition Congress, and some of our ancestors did so on a regular basis. Their pleas often left quite a swath of genealogical information.
A good place to start searching these legislative documents is the Library of Congress, accessible from your home computer at memory.loc .gov/ammem/amlaw/lawhome.html. Look for the House and Senate journals, The American State Papers (38 volumes of legislative documents from 1789 to 1838); House and Senate reports in the U.S. Serial Set (they begin with the 15th congress in 1817); and the U.S. Statutes at Large.
Here are examples of the genealogical information that can be found:
•In 1797, the widow of Hanging Maw, a Cherokee chief, claimed that John Beard and a number of armed men had attacked her dwelling in 1793, killed and wounded a number of "well disposed Indians" and burned, destroyed or carried away their property.
The application reported that Hanging Maw had been uniformly friendly to the settlers of frontier Tennessee and that instead of urging her people to retaliate, the widow had maintained her friendship with the whites.
Congress had sympathy for her cause but feared the wrath of white settlers who had suffered losses at the hands of Indians. So Congress declined to act and passed the political hot potato to the Indian Department.
•In 1828, Julia Gwynn, appealing on behalf of her daughters Catharine and Susannah Gwynn, reported that her husband, John Gwynn, a Revolutionary War veteran, died in Baltimore in 1800. He was entitled to 100 acres of bounty land, she said, but when she applied for it she learned that on July, 14, 1795, it had been issued to William Marbury by a man purporting to be the administrator of Gwynn's "estate."
The War Department had refused to issue another warrant for land to Julia and her daughters, although they obviously had been defrauded. Congress overruled the War Department and granted the land.
•In January 1869, Abraham Lincoln's widow was granted a pension because her husband was Commander in Chief of the Army and was killed in the War of the Rebellion "by the enemies of the United States." Lincoln died Jan. 14, 1865, less than a month before the war ended. Her application was granted.
•Elijah King, an emancipated slave, died intestate (without a will) in Washington, D.C., "possessed of property of considerable value." His wife, Christian King, and sons Bayliss and Thomas survived him.
Justice of the Peace John B. Armistead had presided over the wedding of then-slaves Elijah and Christian with their owners' permission. After the marriage, Elijah won his freedom, but his wife and children were still slaves, so they could not inherit his property when he died. The land escheated to the government.
In this petition, Christian's owner, William A. Stephenson of Fauquier County, Va., and the sons' owner, Robert Carter, stated they would free all three if the government would deed Elijah's land back to the family. A deal was struck, and Congress approved the action in 1857.
Information found here is varied. Some of it could solve long-standing family mysteries, while other bits will yield extraordinary genealogical data. Some may serve only as guideposts pointing researchers to other avenues of research.
A few months ago I was amused when a man told me he planned to contact his congressman to help him find government records on his ancestor. I doubt, in this day and time, he'll find much help there. He, and the rest of us, will just have to dive into these old records and search for ourselves.