Ancestry Blog » Moments in Time The official blog of Ancestry Mon, 26 Jan 2015 14:58:30 +0000 en-US hourly 1 A Civil Rights Sit-In, a Mural Dedication, and a Family Historian’s Moving Story Mon, 30 Jun 2014 22:51:06 +0000 Lou Szucs Read more]]> Burnside Sit-in Memorial, Chicago, Illinois. Photo courtesy of Tony Burroughs

Burnside Sit-in Memorial, Chicago, Illinois. Photo courtesy of Tony Burroughs

With his usual eloquence and the words coming straight from his heart, internationally known genealogist Tony Burroughs spoke to a crowd gathered for the dedication ceremony for a mosaic mural at the Burnside Scholastic Academy on June 15, 2014.

The 300-square-foot mural commemorates the 1962 Burnside School parent and student sit-in, a spark that helped ignite the Civil Rights Movement in Chicago. The sit-in was a landmark case in national and local history. It was one of the catalysts that would eventually lead to the signing of the Civil Rights Act fifty years ago today, on July 2, 1964.

For Tony, his mom, and the other parents who were present that day, it is especially significant. It was their personal and family history. They were there. Tony was one of the sit-in students and his mother was one of the organizers.

The mural is dedicated to that historic 1962 sit-in at Burnside. Renowned muralist Carolyn Elaine designed the mosaic with Burnside students and art teacher Sarah Didricksen. Tony purchased and enlarged photos for the mural, the largest one being six feet tall by eight feet wide and students worked together to frame the photo tiles with a brightly colored broken tile mosaic. In preparation of the installation of the mural, Tony conducted workshops with students on Black History and Civil Rights.

The movement to desegregate schools began on January 2, 1962 with a sit-in at Burnside Elementary School. Prompted by the overcrowding at Burnside, the Chicago Board of Education ordered black 7th and 8th grade students to transfer to Gillespie Upper Grade School (a 17-block walk or more for most attending Burnside), rather than integrating the nearby Perry Elementary School which was only a few blocks from Burnside.

Mary Ellen Burroughs, elected president of the PTA during the sit-in, and other Burnside mothers refused to transfer. Leading the sit-in on the first day of classes after the holidays was Alma Coggs who for years had worked to improve education at the school.

On January 16, 1962, the Chicago Board of Education had police arrest the parents for trespassing at Burnside. On January 17, Judge Joseph Butler agreed with the mothers that the schools should be integrated and dismissed their cases. The cases of eight civil rights workers and two parents who had supported the mothers were dismissed the following day.

On January 19 the Burnside parents filed a class action law suit against the Board of Education seeking a restraining order to halt the transfer of students to Gillespie and $500,000 in damages. In 2011, while researching the sit-in at the National Archives at Chicago, Tony Burroughs was shocked to learn that the federal case bore his name as the lead plaintiff in Burroughs v. Board of Education (62 C 206).  Although Tony knew about the case, until that day, he never knew it had been named for him.

The parents lost in the lawsuit, but the Burnside Sit-In inspired ministers, civil rights workers from NAACP, Urban League, and Freedom Riders to support the protest. Momentum grew and inspired mothers at other schools to protest. Protests were held in opposition of Willis Wagons, which were temporary mobile classrooms built to relieve overcrowded schools in African American communities.

A citywide school boycott of Chicago Public Schools was held on October 22, 1963. Approximately 250,000 students stayed home. It was the largest school boycott in the country. Dr. Martin Luther King said the Civil Rights Movement in Chicago was the most organized movement in the North.

King came to Chicago in 1965 to support the fight for education and returned in 1966 to fight for housing and jobs. Tony’s mother took him to see King in 1965, the only time he was in Martin Luther King’s presence.

In speaking with me, Tony said, “My mom was not a Civil Rights Worker. She just loved kids, loved people, and loved education. She was merely fighting for her kids and fighting for what she thought was right. She wanted the best for her kids and all the other kids in the community. And, she was willing to put her convictions on the line.”

Tony added, “Historians have said that the PTA mothers were ahead of the Civil Rights Workers. All too often, the men, the ministers, and the Civil Rights Workers get credit for the movement. I wanted to promote this historic event, and the art mural, so the mothers could finally get the recognition and respect they deserve. I am so glad at least three of them are still living so they can get the recognition while they are still here.”

Further, Tony noted, “This sit-in inspired me to fight for injustice, to help other people, and to not believe everything you read in the press. Being a professional genealogist, consultant, lecturer, and an author helps me to fulfill one of those goals, which is helping other people, helping them find their ancestors, and helping some to find their living relatives. Also, learning how the press sometimes distorted our parents’ positions ignited me to develop critical eyes, essential in solving genealogy problems.”

For further information about Tony Burroughs, his book, Black Roots: A Beginners Guide to Tracing the African American Family Tree, and to see a video clip of his presentation at the Burnside dedication, visit Tony was also featured in this WGN-TV Cover Story about the sit-in.


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Sir Tony Robinson Reviews Life Before World War I Mon, 09 Jun 2014 05:43:37 +0000 Kristie Wells In this presentation, Sir Tony Robinson uses the records available today to get a better understanding of what life and times were like before World War I.


This was filmed during the Who Do You Think You Are? Live show in London, UK.

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5 Things About the Port of Baltimore Thu, 29 May 2014 18:13:23 +0000 Juliana Szucs Read more]]> 20140528Baltimore

Immigrant receiving piers, Locust Point, Baltimore, 1892 (From the Library of Congress Photo Collection, 1840-2000)

We hear a lot about the Port of New York because of the sheer volume of immigrants who passed through it. There’s so much focus on New York that it can be easy to forget about other important ports.

In my own family, my grandfather proudly told me how his father passed through Ellis Island. True to his word, I found a record of him arriving in October 1902. What he didn’t tell me, though, was that the New York arrival was his second—he had also arrived in July of that same year through the port of Baltimore. That arrival was especially interesting from a family history standpoint because he was traveling with his future brother-in-law.

Over the next few months, we’ll take a look at some of the other ports of entry to the U.S. But in honor of Great-Grandpa Szucs, today we start with Baltimore.

1. Colonial Immigration

The first immigrants arrived in Maryland in 1634 from England and Ireland on board the “Ark” and the “Dove.” Slaves from Africa were brought in great numbers to work the tobacco fields, and by the mid-1700s, they represented more than a quarter of Maryland’s population.

2. Privateering

During the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, Baltimore was a bustling port for privateers. The fledgling U.S. government needed naval power and turned to the private sector. Letters of marque and reprisal (government licenses) authorized private ships to prey on merchant vessels sailing under enemy flags, in what amounted to legal piracy. Captured ships were brought to port, where they were condemned in the Admiralty Court and sold at auction. After taxes and court fees, the proceeds were split among the privateers at a pre-determined rate.

3. A Transportation Network is Born

During the 19th century, a robust transportation network began taking shape in Baltimore. By 1818, the National Road (also called Cumberland Road) linked Cumberland, Maryland, with Wheeling, Virginia (now West Virginia). Baltimore completed a series of turnpikes in 1824 which ultimately connected the Chesapeake Bay to the Ohio River. The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad (B&O) began serving passengers in the late 1820s and by 1852 had reached Wheeling as well. These inland transportation routes, coupled with Baltimore’s geographic location as the westernmost seaport on the East Coast, made Baltimore an attractive port of entry for immigrants seeking a route to the U.S. interior.

4. The Immigrants

Immigration waves through Baltimore reflected that of other eastern U.S. port cities, like Philadelphia, Boston, and New York. Irish famine immigrants began arriving in the late 1840s and continued to stream in during the ensuing decades. Even larger numbers of German immigrants were also arriving around this time. Other ethnic groups followed, although in smaller numbers.

In 1867, immigration jumped when the North German Lloyd Steamship line entered an agreement with the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, allowing immigrants to purchase one ticket that would take them across the ocean to Baltimore and inland by train. Ships laden with tobacco, lumber, and cotton goods from Baltimore’s textile industries arrived in Bremerhaven and returned with European immigrants and goods. That year more than 10,000 people passed through the port, more than doubling the 4,000 immigrants of the previous year.

5. The Immigrant Experience

In 1868 immigrants began arriving at the new B&O piers at Locust Point. Immigration inspections required of steerage passengers were conducted on board the ships as they made their way into Chesapeake Bay. When they docked at the pier, immigrants could go directly to the B&O trains that would take them on the next leg of their journey.

For those who had to wait for trains, the Immigration Station contracted with Mrs. Augusta Koether who ran a large boarding house. She was paid 75 cents a day for each immigrant who stayed with her. According to Forgotten Doors: The Other Ports of Entry to the United States, her boarding house was a haven for immigrants for close to half a century.


Immigration through Baltimore peaked at about 40,000 per year when World War I stopped the flow of immigration, but not before close to two million immigrants had passed through Baltimore’s port.

Search for your ancestors in Baltimore Passenger Lists.

Baltimore Immigration Memorial Foundation

M. Mark Stolarik, ed. Forgotten Doors: The Other Ports of Entry to the United States, “Chapter 3: Immigration through the Port of Baltimore,” by Dean R. Esslinger (Philadelphia, Pa.: The Balch Institute Press, 1988.)

Learn About Other Ports:

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Today Marks The 100th Anniversary of the Sinking of the Empress of Ireland Thu, 29 May 2014 14:00:59 +0000 Kristie Wells Read more]]> On this day in 1914, the ocean liner sank in Saint Lawrence River and took 1,012 lives with it, making it Canada’s worst ever maritime disaster during peacetime.ACOM_Empress

Nettie Beckstead


One of those lost was Adjutant Nettie Beckstead. Born on October 5, 1871, she dedicated her life to helping others, working with the Salvation Army for 23 years.

Nettie and 167 other Salvation Army representatives were en route to an international Salvation Army Congress in London. Sadly, only a handful survived. Weeks were spent searching for Nettie’s body, but she was never recovered.

Our research team was able to connect with Cynthia and Carolyn, who are great-great nieces of Nettie Beckstead. They came together on regarding the Beckstead family, sharing photos and more information with each other. They’ve met several times throughout the years and in 2012 journeyed together to their family memorial near Morrisburg, Ontario.

On May 25th, the pair went to the memorial for the Salvation Army representatives who lost their lives on the Empress of Ireland. The service was held at Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Toronto.

Also marking this anniversary was the trade magazine ‘MI Pro’ who featured the event [Edwardian style] on their front cover, telling the story of Albert Mullins [of Barnes & Mullins] who passed away in this tragedy.


Pick up a copy of MI Pro to read this article or check out the online version here.

It has been 100 years since this ship’s last journey, let’s take a moment of silence to remember Adjutant Nettie Beckstead, Albert Mullins and the 1,010 others who were lost in the RMS Empress of Ireland disaster. May they forever RIP.


If you would like to search for other passengers on this ship, please start here:





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Turn on AMC: A Couple Family History Takeaways Sun, 25 May 2014 15:21:39 +0000 Juliana Szucs Read more]]> Growing up I was a bookworm. (See yesterday’s blog post for Throwback Thursdays. That’s me on the right, nose in a book.) Even then I loved to read about history. There was a series of biographies at our school library that I worked my way through from start to finish. Between those and the Nancy Drew books I also went through at a rapid pace, looking back, my career path should have been obvious.

One of my favorite books was Celia Garth, by Gwen Bristow. I got it at a garage sale and must have read that book 100 times. It was the story of a dressmaker living in Charleston during the American Revolution. She became a spy and used her place as a dressmaker to eavesdrop on Loyalists in the shop. She passed that information on to her friends on the American side and I thought it would be so exciting to be a spy. There was a little romance, a little history, a little adventure—the perfect mix for me.

So when I heard AMC was going to run a series about a spy ring during the American Revolution, I had my husband set the DVR to record Turn every Sunday. We’ve found that it’s one of those rare series that we both enjoy, as we have somewhat different tastes when it comes to TV. As we were watching the show this past weekend, I was thinking that there are several things from the series that resonate with family history. (Of course. All roads lead to genealogy.)


Characters/Actors: Daniel Henshall as Caleb Brewster, Jamie Bell as Abe Woodhull, Heather Lind as Anna Strong, and Seth Numrich as Ben Tallmadge. Photo Credit: Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC


Mind the Timeline

When I first heard about it, naturally I had to research the Culper spy ring, upon which the series is based. (‘Cuz that’s how I roll. I’m a research geek.)

The Culper Ring was formed following Benjamin Tallmadge’s appointment to lead the Continental Army’s intelligence service in 1778 by General George Washington. Just as in the show, he enlisted the help of trusted friends Abraham Woodhull and Caleb Brewster.

But when I started watching the show, I was confused. The group was formed in 1778, but it kept referring to events of 1776. Clearly there were some liberties taken to align the show with the memorable events of that year. I get that. After all, AMC’s goal is to entertain. And in my book, anything that gets people interested in history is a good thing. Next thing you know, viewers are working on their family history and posting family pictures and Bible records. (Again, all roads lead to genealogy.)

We run into this thing all the time in family history. In my family we have a story an aunt told us of an ancestor that came over with Lafayette to fight in the Revolution and supposedly sired my ancestor. Putting that into context chronologically would mean that he was in his 80s at the time. Possible, but not likely. So that story’s on the shelf until I can figure out whether there are any grains of truth in it.

So, tip number one from Turn is, whether you’re looking at an online tree’s accuracy, trying to find the truth in a family story, or trying to determine whether that record really does belong to your ancestor, look at the timeline. Does it fit and does it make sense?  If it puts your ancestor in multiple places at the same time, or if he seems too old or too young for it for it to make sense, more research is needed.

New to timelines? Here’s a free guide to help you get started.

Know the Lay of the Land

One of the cool features of the series is the StorySync and the interactive features on the website. While I haven’t actually done the StorySync while the show was on, I have done some exploring. The StorySync gives you some interesting historical insights into the historical characters and events, and I really like the map, because yeah, I’m a map freak too. You can click on the icons on the map and learn about various aspects of the show. When Abe crossed the Long Island Sound to Connecticut, I was wondering how far that really was and the interactive map tells me it was about 25 nautical miles round trip and that it was pretty rough travel.

Putting the lay of the land (and sea) into context is important in family history. Looking at migration and travel routes can be revealing. For example, we often think of our ancestors traveling by land because that’s most of us get around, but back in the 1700s, travel by water was often easier. Look at a topographical map of the places where your ancestors lived. Was there a mountain between them and the nearest town? Or perhaps there was a waterway could be crossed when settling in a new location. Long Island was first settled by colonists from New Haven, Connecticut, and during the Revolutionary War, many of those loyal to the American cause made their way to Connecticut shores when the British took control of the area. (See The Refugees of 1776 from Long Island to Connecticut, by Frederic Gregory Mather.)

So learn the lay of the land, rivers, lakes, and sea, and you may learn something new about your ancestors. And be sure to check TURN, Sundays at 9|8c! We expect you’ll become a fan of the show as we have.

Note: Past episodes are available online


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Nation’s Working Mothers Increase 800% Over Last 150 Years Thu, 08 May 2014 11:55:52 +0000 Ancestry Team Read more]]> One hundred and fifty years of federal census data and one thing is clear: the growing trend of working mothers in the United States is as old as Lincoln’s presidency. We recently examined 150 years of U.S. Federal Census records to understand the role of mothers in the workforce and found the national average has grown 800% over the past century and a half – from 7.5% working mothers in 1860 to 67% today.

“Mom’s plates have been full for generations, but it wasn’t until the US Census Bureau started recording occupation data for women in 1860 that we really begin to see and understand their role in the nation’s workforce,” said Todd Godfrey, Global Content Acquisition at “Exploring the histories of the women in your family tree can help you better understand the times in which they lived and find commonalities among working mothers that transcend time.”

Growth Over the Decades
According to the analysis, every decade since 1860 shows a different rate of growth, influenced by what was happening in the nation at the time. The woman’s suffrage movement, regional trends and wartime all contributed to growth rates after the turn of the century. With so many fathers going off to war in the first half of 1940, the nation called upon women to join the workforce like never before. This ushered in the highest growth rates for working women in the country since 1860, with double-digit growth continuing for the next four decades (1950-1990). The highest growth over the entire 150-year timeframe occurred in 1980 (12.6%), boosting the percentage of working mothers to 52%.

South Dakota Boasts Largest Growth and Percentage of Working Moms
Most interesting in the analysis were the 10 states that showed the most working mothers, compared to the 10 states with the fewest. “In analyzing the numbers, it was apparent that states seemed to group together on rate of growth,” Godfrey said. “For nearly 80 years the highest percentage of working mothers was in the South and the lowest percentage was in the Midwest. In the most recent four decades the Southern states traded places with the Midwest states which now make up the majority of the top 10 states.”

Eight states dominated the bottom of the working mothers list for much of the 20th century: South Dakota, North Dakota, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Vermont, and Kansas. However these states would climb to the top of the list by 2000 taking eight of the top ten spots with the largest percentages of working mothers for the past three decades. Among the eight, South Dakota has had the highest growth and boasts the highest percentage of working mothers as of the last census in 2010 (79.9%). As of 2010, the top 10 states with working mothers include:


  • South Dakota: 79.9%
  • North Dakota: 78.9%
  • Iowa: 78.4%
  • Minnesota: 78.0%
  • Nebraska: 77.4%
  • Wisconsin: 76.6%
  • Vermont: 75.4%
  • New Hampshire: 73.5%
  • Kansas: 73.3%
  • Maine: 71.1%

Working moms have played an integral role in helping shape the American workforce over the past 150 years. From homestead settler in the mid-1800s to today’s entrepreneurs and executives, one thing is certain – there’s no slowing the nation’s working mothers!

Methodology: Data analysis is based on data from the Integrated Public Use Microdata Series (IPUMS) which has a random sample of household data taken from each decennial census of the U.S. Federal Census. Mothers were defined as women living with at least one child in the household. Labor force participation was determined based on occupation for 1850-1930 and modern labor force participation definition for 1940 onwards. States or territories with less than 70 mothers in the sample for a given year were dropped from the analysis for that year. 

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The Year Was 1941 Wed, 02 Apr 2014 22:18:52 +0000 Juliana Szucs Read more]]> WWII Government PosterWith the upcoming release of Captain America, I thought it would be timely to take a look at what was going on in the real world during the year the original comic was released, 1941.  

The year opened with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous Four Freedoms Speech. In this State of the Union address, the president told Congress and the country that “the future and the safety of our country and of our democracy are overwhelmingly involved in events far beyond our borders.” Following World War I, the U.S. had reverted to isolationism, with the majority of the public not favoring involvement in foreign disputes, but the tide was slowly turning as many Americans began to ponder the impact of Axis victories in Asia and Europe and wonder about the extent of their ambitions.

The Four Freedoms Speech would inspire Norman Rockwell to create four paintings depicting these freedoms, which would later be used as posters to help sell war bonds.

In March, Roosevelt signed the Lend-Lease Act into law, which allowed the U.S. “To manufacture in arsenals, factories, and shipyards under their jurisdiction, or otherwise procure. . . any defense article for the government of any country whose defense the President deems vital to the defense of the United States.” This made the way for the shipment of much-needed supplies to allies like Great Britain and Russia, including food, aircraft, ships and land vehicles. In a press conference, Roosevelt compared the program to lending a neighbor whose house was on fire a garden hose to help extinguish the flames, saying that he wouldn’t want to charge that neighbor for the hose, but rather, he would just like the hose returned when the fire was out.

Also in 1941, Germany attacked and occupied Yugoslavia and Greece, and in June, invaded Russia. After the invasion, mobile units of Einsatzgruppen, or death squads, followed and performed mass executions of primarily Jewish victims in the invaded areas of the USSR. This year also saw the establishment of death camps in Birkenau and Chelmno, as well as the massacre of 34,000 Jews at Babi Yar.

The year would end with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the U.S. declaring war on Japan and Germany. National Geographic has an interesting online exhibit of first-hand accounts, photos and footage on the Pearl Harbor attacks.

In the entertainment world, popular movies included Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon and Sergeant York. The USO was born in 1941 and in May, Bob Hope performed in his first USO show. The USO continues to serve as a bridge between Americans and American servicemen and women through USO centers, clubs and shows to boost morale and as a vehicle of American support for troops. Soldiers at the USO canteens would have likely danced to the Chattanooga Choo-choo, Green Eyes, and We Three.

The year 1941 and the U.S. entrance into World War II would bring changes to all families in the U.S. As my dad recalls, in the ensuing war years, his family would follow the progress of the war through newspapers and plot locations on maps, and his coloring books would have a military theme, depicting planes, tanks, soldiers and snipers. His family also grew a victory garden and collected tin cans for recycling.

What are your memories or what stories have you heard about 1941?


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Spanish Influenza: The Life Story of Patient Zero Tue, 11 Mar 2014 21:10:24 +0000 Kristie Wells Read more]]> Today, 96 years ago, Private Albert Martin Gitchell, a company cook at Camp Funston in Kansas, reported to the sick bay with the first documented case of the Spanish Influenza.

Following our Core Conversation on big data and the stories we can tell from it during the SxSW conference,  we looked into the family history of Spanish Influenza “patient zero” and pulled together his story represented in a visual way. 


This is a photo of the 1918 Spanish influenza ward at Camp Funston, Kansas, showing the many soldiers ill with the flu. Photo from National Museum of Health and Medicine, AFIP (public domain).

It’s easy to look at the Spanish Flu in terms of deaths (some reports have it as 20+ million), but what were the stories of those affected? What was Albert’s story? Did he die as a result of capturing the Spanish Influenza? Find out by viewing his story, told from records and photos.

We invite you to share great (or poor) examples of storytelling with data that you’ve run across by adding them in the comments below and or by using the hashtag #datastory on Twitter, Facebook and/or Google+.


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The Mitchelville Preservation Project Thu, 27 Feb 2014 21:25:23 +0000 Juliana Szucs Read more]]> 20140220Clemson8I love hearing about interesting projects that incorporate family history into history on a larger scale. Last fall when I was in Utah, my friend Kim Harrison, who is the product manager for our institutional accounts, told me about a unique project that is commemorating the first self-governed town of freed slaves in America.

During the Civil War, Hilton Head Island, which was also referred to as Port Royal, was under Union control beginning in November 1861. Slaves fleeing from the mainland and nearby islands, and African Americans that had stayed behind after the island’s slave owners fled the Yankee invasion, flocked to the Union camp, where they were housed in military camps that quickly became overcrowded.

General Ormsby Mitchel proposed that the newly-freed slaves form a self-governed village where they could live independently on the lands where some of them once worked as slaves. By 1865, Mitchelville was home to 1,500 residents, many of whom worked for the military as blacksmiths, coopers, clerks, cooks, and launderers, among other things. When the military left in 1868, the community turned to farming and other commercial pursuits to sustain themselves.

The population peaked in around 1890 at about 3,000 residents, but by the 1930s it had declined to around 300. In 2005 the Mitchelville Preservation Project was formed with the mission to “replicate, preserve, and sustain a historically significant site and to educate the public about the sacrifice, resilience and perseverance of the freedmen of Mitchelville and to share the story of how these brave men and women planted strong and enduring familial roots for generations of future African Americans.” Plans are underway to recreate the historic setting with Mitchelville Freedom Park, which will span 32 acres and include an educational kiosk.

So what does all this have to do with family history? Well, Clemson University’s Pan-African Studies Program is working with the Heritage Library Foundation, the Mitchelville Preservation Project, and to identify and trace the family histories of those original 1,500 Mitchelville residents. Kim Harrison attended an event last fall and worked with the students (pictured below) who were involved in the project. While none of the students were history majors, they all embraced the journey of discovering the roots of this historic community. Kim gave a presentation on how to use for their research. At a formal event, the students met with descendants of Mitchelville’s original residents and presented them with tree ring plaques with engraved pedigrees documenting their island roots.

It is a wonderful thing when a community, a local library, and college students can come together to preserve the legacy of a historic community—one family history at a time. If you’d like to learn more about the Mitchelville project, you can visit their website or keep up with the project via their Facebook page. If you’re a descendant of one of the residents of Mitchelville, you can contact the Heritage Library Foundation which is spearheading the People of Mitchelville project.





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Local Histories: Let it Snow Sun, 23 Feb 2014 17:17:06 +0000 Lou Szucs Read more]]> Being a history lover, I subscribe to a whole lot of paper and online newsletters and magazines. A few weeks back, an item in the Wisconsin Historical Society weekly email caught my eye – reservations were being taken for old-fashioned horse-drawn sleigh rides. How fun would it be to feel, hear, and see what our grandparents did before sights and sounds like snow blowers and snowplows took over? I love modern conveniences, but the idea of a romantic sleigh ride in the quiet countryside sounds wonderful.

The description of the sleigh ride reminded me of a letter that my grandfather saved. In the letter, dated February 7, 1895, the writer is trying to organize a sleigh ride for a group of friends that included my grandfather and the girl he would marry later that year—my grandmother.  From the letter and penciled math on the back of it, apparently they needed ten couples to make it economically feasible.


Letters, journals, and mementos that our ancestors saved may not yield hard evidence of births, marriages, and deaths that we can pin to our family trees, but they can provide personality insights that can’t be found elsewhere. Why did my grandfather save this letter? Was there special sentiment attachment to it? Might he have proposed to my grandmother on that sleigh ride? I’ll never know, but these things serve to tickle our curiosity about our people, prompting us to scratch around until we learn more about their lives and the times and places where they lived.

I’ve done a lot of scratching around in my efforts to learn more about Brooklyn, New York, where almost all of my American ancestors lived and died. As I was thinking about the snowy conditions challenging so many of us lately, it seemed like a good time to look at one of my favorite books on The civil, political, professional and ecclesiastical history and commercial and industrial record of the county of Kings and the city of Brooklyn, N.Y.: from 1683 to 1884, by Henry Reed Stiles. This time, I thought I’d see how our ancestors handled winter’s wrath—and even made the best of it. For example, Stiles describes the winter of 1757–58, when the court house in Flatbush was saved from a fire “by the energetic efforts of the people, who extinguished the fire by throwing snow-balls upon it.”


By the time my ancestors had arrived in 1820, Brooklyn had trained firemen who presumably had more than snowballs to fight fires with.

Stiles also included a reproduction of a snow scene painted by Francis Guy. I especially love that he provided a key to the image so we can see who was who, who owned the buildings, and what each one was.


The reproduction below is a rare pre-camera view of Brooklyn that gives us a sense of what a snow-covered Brooklyn was like. For more colorful views of paintings by Francis Guy, see this exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum website.

Anyone who has been stranded in a snowstorm might feel special empathy for 600 people who were “forced to remain all night in the street cars” in Brooklyn on February 6, 1882, because of a “great fall of snow,” also noted by Stiles.


All of these insights came from a search of Stiles’ book using the keyword “snow.” There are thousands of local histories on that could contain insights on your ancestors that are just waiting to be discovered. The trick to uncovering them is to navigate to the collection and search it directly. Here’s how:

  1. Click on the Search tab and scroll down to the map at the bottom of the page.
  2. Select the state where your ancestors lived.
  3. Scroll down the list of collections by category to the last one: Stories, Memories, & Histories.
  4. Browse through the titles on the state level, or select a county from the box on the right side of the page.
  5. Search for a topic of interest by entering a term in the keyword field (e.g., drought, winter, epidemic, flood, market, etc.). You could also search for a year that was significant to your ancestors, perhaps the year the family arrived, the year a child was born, or the year a couple married.

Sometimes we get so caught up in the names and dates that we forget to do a little digging for the stories. And those stories can make for some darned interesting reading on a snowy evening.


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