When I started planning my book about Michelle Obama’s family tree, I envisioned myself traipsing to far-flung cities on the hunt for historical records. During two years of reporting and writing my book, American Tapestry, I did, in fact, crisscross the country, traveling to North Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, Alabama, Illinois and other states. In archives, libraries and local courthouses, I discovered the clues that would help me identify, for the first time, Mrs. Obama’s white ancestors, and help me flesh out the life stories of her black and mixed-race forebears. I poured over 19th century property records from Spartanburg, South Carolina. I dug into Civil War pension files at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. But I also found that I could do research on my home computer without leaving my front door, using online tools like Ancestry.com and digital archives, where I found marriage and death certificates, census reports and military records right at my fingertips.
It is hard to imagine a better time for ordinary people hoping to research their roots. Many states, libraries and historical societies have digitized their archival records. I found wills from 19th century Spartanburg in South Carolina’s online archives. I found Missouri birth records from the early 1900s and electronic versions of Baltimore City Directories from the same time period, from state and university online databases.
There is nothing quite like the thrill of pouring through stacks of records in a musty courthouse and touching history with your hands. Many county and small town records can still only be found in the local courthouses, historical societies and libraries. Even so, online archives are a treasure for people who don’t have the luxury of jumping on a plane every month or so to hunt down a particular record. Have you considered trying to learn more about your roots? What are you waiting for? Talk to your parents, your grandparents, your aunts and uncles, your oldest relatives. Gather up the old records in those safe deposit boxes and get started. To find out more about the secrets hidden for more than a century in Mrs. Obama’s family tree — and to win a signed copy of American Tapestry and a free subscription to Ancestry.com — please click here and visit Bookperk.
About Rachel L. Swarns
Rachel L. Swarns has been a reporter for the New York Times since 1995. She has written about domestic policy and national politics, reporting on immigration, the presidential campaigns of 2004 and 2008, and First Lady Michelle Obama and her role in the Obama White House. She has also worked overseas for the New York Times, reporting from Russia, Cuba, and southern Africa, where she served as the Johannesburg bureau chief. She lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband and two children.