Genealogical lessons

A poster dated April 24, 1851, warning colored people in Boston to beware of authorities who acted as slave catchers. Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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.

Recently an article in Newsweek highlighted the lack of knowledge about slavery by high schoolers in the United States. The statistics presented were not as shocking to me as they should have been. Remembering my own formal education and my previous work teaching undergraduates provided me my own personal experiences that mirrored the findings in the report. The lack of focus in schools on slavery and colonization is what drove me to research the things history books weren’t telling me, for this information is essential to understanding all other aspects of our national history.

Slavery research can be difficult logistically as I try to piece together the lives of ancestors where little documentation exists.

All of this got me wondering about how genealogy can help bridge the gap in our understanding of these very sensitive and difficult topics. High schoolers and the general public are much more likely to feel the gravity of colonization and slavery when they are faced with the people who lived through it rather than statics in a book. Exercises such as researching specific slave laws to determine what records may be available for an ancestor help take the “big” political and legal history down to the individual level. This helps to humanize history and makes us realize how the past plays a role in the present.

Title page of the first edition (1663) of John Eliot’s translation of the Holy Bible.

Last week many members of the NEHGS staff spent the day learning from a member of the Wampanoag Nation about the realities of colonization to better understand the work we do as a genealogical society, particularly as we approach the four-hundredth anniversary of the voyage of the Mayflower and the founding of Plymouth Colony. Our training was a positive and eye-opening experience for many in the room, and I am sure will help us research with greater empathy as we look for ancestors who lived in America from colonial times through to the present.

Many of the effects of colonization and slavery are still felt by communities today, and genealogy can provide an avenue for viewing the realities of past and present through the biographies of individuals. Perhaps an exercise in tracing the lives of an enslaved individual and their descendants is one learning method to educate high schoolers and adults about these more difficult elements of our nation’s past.

About Meaghan E.H. Siekman

Meaghan holds a Ph.D. in history from Arizona State University where her focus was public history and American Indian history. She earned her B.A. in history from Union College in Schenectady, New York, the city where she grew up. Prior to joining the NEHGS team, Meaghan worked as the Curator of the Fairbanks House in Dedham, Massachusetts, as an archivist at the Heard Museum Library in Phoenix, Arizona, and wrote a number of National Register Nominations and Cultural Landscape Inventories for the National Park Service. Meaghan is passionate about connecting people with the past in meaningful and lasting ways. She enjoys finding interesting anecdotes about an ancestor to help bring the past to life.

12 thoughts on “Genealogical lessons

  1. The dehumanization of slavery struck my emotions a hard blow as I reviewed the probate records of an ancestor and found the administrator’s estimates of the value of the decedent’s human property.

  2. Yes, dehumanizing, especially among the large slaveholdings. However, when a descendant of one of my ancestors slaves contacted me about some records, I found it thrilling…especially hearing that 1)they were taught to read and 2)that a will had been modified to keep families together Tthose were bits of information about both sides I never would have known otherwise- revealing of their character.

  3. This was so timely. The poster made me cry. Boston has such a long history of being a sanctuary city. If students could be made aware of their ancestry as immigrants it would make a wold of difference. A project in 5th grade (1960) where I discussed Ireland as my ancestry, and drew the map of Ireland on the cover never left me after that. I came to know in the most fundamental way, my identity was rooted elsewhere and immigrants came here both unwillingly and in fear. It was a place for hope. Boston has been amazing. Though there is no one single good complete online presence of the Boston Pilot, the various bits that have gone online did yield an advertisement to find the sister of my g-g-g-grandmother, with the townland of her birth listed. This is for a woman who emigrated from Ireland in the 1840s, to Canada, and may have made it to Wisconsin, and yet that single source, a far-flung Irish immigrant church paper, kept worlds of secrets in the public eye. It is the first time these historical documents opened up a world where the local history – the experience of my forbears – is, after decades of research, now more important than the names on the genealogy software.

  4. Working through a family history really puts a person in touch with the details of history up close and personal, that’s for sure! Most of our ancestors were the commoners who didn’t own large tracts of land; many (especially early on) had urgent reasons to leave Europe for America. I think of my Palatine ancestors who in 1710 escaped war, disease, and harsh winter weather. As they fled up the Rhine to Rotterdam, they could see castles burning on the shores. I honestly don’t know how so many of my ancestors, in all branches, survived and I’ve lived to tell about it.

    This is not to in any way make light of the tragedy that was American slavery.

  5. Something that made it personal for me was helping an African-American friend research her family and seeing how one of the counties her family came from in North Carolina historically had had a lot of slaves, but that no portion of their Historical Society’s website was dedicated to African-American family research. That angered me at a gut level – even now, her relatives aren’t getting their due respect. Everyone’s ancestors deserve to be acknowledged.

    Any time history gets down to the personal level, to people you know or can connect with, it has much greater impact.

  6. As we prepare to celebrate the Mayflower 400th anniversary, I am looking forward to another opportunity, and that is to celebrate the native peoples contributions to survival and prosperity of the original passengers. These were the “locals” those feet on the street individuals who where here when the Mayflower landed. They were the people who were interacted with. We ate together, learned from each other, loved each other, married each other and yes, also lost each other. People were displaced, forgot about; and not thanked or remembered. It seems to me that I have heard of many scenarios where a person “finds” a place, translates that into thinking they alone, discovered it and subsequently “own” it. I think it happened many times before the Mayflower, and continues to today. “Urban renewal” and space exploration come to mind as examples after Plymouth Colony. I am up for getting the gang back together!

  7. Occasionally while researching I come across an enslaved person in a record and I wonder if I should somehow flag the record to highlight the fact and hopefully aid some other researcher. Typically this has involved estate papers and the enslaved person is identified by name, gender and/or age. Does an index exist for these sorts of records?

    1. Barb LaFara, there is a website that is starting that is collecting all info for Slaves but unfortunately I don’t think I bookmarked it. Maybe someone here knows the name of it.

  8. Reading the superb new Grant biography by Ron Chernow, about President Johnson, the Reconstruction era, the horrors endured by those newly freed… it will make you cry. This part of our history has been ignored for too long.

  9. I just finished working on an ancestor family who in 1820 had four slaves under 14 years of age–1 male and 3 female. In his Will, the ancestor named those children and gave his wife the use of them during her lifetime, after which his five sons were to draw for one and the one not getting a slave was to be paid 1/5 the total value. Luckily, it likely didn’t happen as all but one of the sons had moved west early on. But I am haunted by this scenario of children under 14 being held as slaves with no apparent parents.

  10. Re: Megan’s note on the Wampanoag Education Session — start your own “re-education” experience with The Invasion of America by Francis Jennings. Been out 40+ years but remains All Still True and NOT fake news.

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