I grew up with an understanding that I had German and Irish roots. My paternal grandfather would often pull out a few German phrases he learned from his grandparents. On my mother’s side my cousins and I all took great pride in being “Kiley girls.” While these identities were strong in my upbringing, it wasn’t until I was older that I realized my most recent immigrant ancestor was not German or Irish, but Czech – an identity that was not impressed upon me at all.
Many genealogists will tell you that they get absorbed into the world of the ancestors they are researching. Often one can’t help but recreate their environment and the things they experienced while seeking out documents that help piece together that puzzle. Due to the nature of my work, for me this means coming face to face with the realities of slavery and colonization nearly every day.
Slavery research can be difficult logistically as I try to piece together the lives of ancestors where little documentation exists. The harder aspect of the work is emotional, particularly when it means going page by page through slavery registers of children to find an ancestor recorded among them. Regardless of the challenges, it is important work that has provided me with a much deeper understanding of our past as a nation and the continuing implications of that history on our present. Continue reading Genealogical lessons
I have traced my husband’s paternal line back to Anthony Siekman, who was born in Germany about 1821. I knew from his petition for naturalization that he arrived in the United States in 1852, but I did not know much beyond that. As the progenitor of this line in America, I have Anthony to thank for the surname I carry after marriage and the name my children will carry into the world. Perhaps this is the reason why I first took an interest in piecing together the details of his life, but what I discovered was a tragic story that led to more questions. Continue reading Bittersweet discoveries
[Editor’s note: This blog post originally appeared in Vita Brevis on 2 February 2016.]
From tracing free people of color in New England to identifying former slaves in the deep south, NEHGS can help you tell your family story. We have a number of guides and tools in our library and available through our education department and online databases that can help you jump start researching your African American roots all over the United States, not just New England. Continue reading ICYMI: Tracing your African roots at NEHGS
My family spent a mostly rainy Memorial Day weekend at my family’s summer home in the Catskills. The house that has been called simply “the Farm” for at least four generations holds a special place in my heart and some serendipitous discoveries around the property over the course of the weekend reminded me that I am not the first in my family to feel a strong connection to the place.
As one of my son’s first trips up for the season, we were sure to measure him against the growth chart on the pantry door that recorded my development and that of all my cousins. It was a fun to see that my 19-month-old is almost as tall as I was at 2 years old, which hopefully means he will be taller than me! Beyond that, seeing all the markings on the wall brought back memories of childhood. The door is now a document of how many of us were raised under the Farm’s roof. Continue reading Family marks
My grandfather (Walter Robert “Bob” Heisinger, a.k.a. Poppa) was notorious for carrying around a gigantic wallet bursting at the seams with photographs, business cards, and other little mementos he picked up over the years. He would often pull bits and pieces out at social gatherings as props to his stories and jokes. I remember harassing him as a teenager that the thickness of the wallet was contributing to his hip problems and I made a box for him to store some of its contents, though I am sure the box remained empty for the rest of his life. Continue reading Poppa’s wallet
I frequently contribute to a column on The Root online magazine, where I respond with Henry Louis Gates Jr. to genealogical questions from the readers. Often the questions involve trying to trace families back to the slavery period, which is a daunting and difficult task. Not only are records hard to come by, but the work can be an emotional rollercoaster.
It is mixed with the delight of finding an ancestor listed by name in a probate record, quickly followed by the realization that they are there because they were property. It can be hard to face the realities of the past when seeing children listed with monetary values next to their names, but also rewarding to know you have pieced a family together with the record. Continue reading Accounting for the care of slaves
In preparing a lecture on house histories, I was reminded of the importance of chaining deeds – that is, linking the deeds for your house together using a deed chart – as the first step in researching the history of your home. Deeds are the primary source when conducting research on a building or property. While the deeds can only tell you who owned a house and not necessarily who lived in it at any given time, the transfer of the property from one owner to the next forms the structure of your research and can provide clues for where to look for more information. Continue reading Chaining deeds
Many of us have family lore about an elusive Native ancestor somewhere far back on our family tree. Over the past year in Research Services we have received about a dozen formal requests to search for a Native ancestor and other inquiries over the phone. Often these requests are based on stories passed down through the generations or when DNA results display some Native American ancestry in an autosomal test.
As someone with a background in American Indian studies who has worked with Native nations in both New York and Arizona, I often struggle with how to respond to these inquiries in a meaningful way that is both respectful of living Native communities and to the individuals seeking information on whether or not their ancestors were a part of that history. Continue reading ‘My ancestor the Indian Princess’
A very exciting and important project, one creating a searchable database for 1.5 million Freedmen’s Bureau records, is near completion. The database will allow family researchers to locate records of their ancestors at the click of a button and will surely revolutionize the way African-Americans conduct family research. The best part is, you can help!
The Freedmen’s Bureau, officially known as the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, was created near the end of the Civil War to help those needing assistance following the war, namely newly-emancipated slaves and white refugees, as well as to manage and resettle lands abandoned by former owners. Continue reading Giving voice to the silenced