All posts by Meaghan E.H. Siekman

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.

Family marks

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

Poppa’s wallet

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

Accounting for the care of slaves

From Florida Probate Records, 1784-1990, at

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

Chaining deeds

historic-home-deed-chartIn 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

‘My ancestor the Indian Princess’

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Pretty Nose at Fort Keogh in Montana (1879).

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’

Giving voice to the silenced

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Figure 1: The Freedmen’s Bureau by Alfred R. Waud in Harper’s Weekly 25 July 1868 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
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

Chasing a squirrel

Sonet distributionA squirrel![1] I find a lot of them while researching and I am sure all other researchers find them, too: those pieces of information that have nothing to do with what you are researching. You come across them by accident and they pull your attention away from what you are trying to find because they are equally or sometimes more interesting.  Sometimes it is a quick tangent – and sometimes squirrels can lead to an entirely new path of research that sticks with you for a long time. Continue reading Chasing a squirrel

Tracing your African roots at NEHGS

The Old Plantation
The Old Plantation. Courtesy of

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 Tracing your African roots at NEHGS

Public genealogists

Fairbanks house by Meaghan Siekman
The Fairbanks House in 2012.

I was recently a guest lecturer for a graduate museum studies class as part of the American Indian Studies program at Minnesota State University, Mankato. When I agreed to speak to the class I assumed I would be focusing on my academic work: my work as a public historian, work outside of genealogy. I was surprised to find that the students were most interested in discussing my genealogical work in the context of public history. Continue reading Public genealogists

Divorce, Abandonment, and Family Secrets

There has always been some secrecy surrounding the Heisinger side of my family. My grandfather did not know anything about his paternal grandfather, Charles Heisinger, because my great-grandfather, Walter Heisinger, never spoke of his father. We were not even sure of his first name, only that we all had inherited the Heisinger surname from a mystery man. Undoubtedly there was some painful history that my great-grandfather did not wish to share with his children, but it left us with a hole in our family history.

John Kugler Household, 1900 U.S Federal Census, Brooklyn Ward 28, Kings, New York; Roll 1066; Page 7A; Enumeration District 0502, accessed at
John Kugler Household, 1900 U.S Federal Census, Brooklyn Ward 28, Kings, New York; Roll 1066; Page 7A; Enumeration District 0502, accessed at

Continue reading Divorce, Abandonment, and Family Secrets