We love census records. And vital records. And passenger lists. We could go on. Each of these documents does so much to pinpoint our relatives in a certain place at a certain time. Then we flesh out their stories not only by reading what is on each record but also by reading between the lines. It takes patience, experience, and analytical skills. At certain points, though, you have to hypothesize; you’re left to your best guess as to why your great-grandfather moved across the country, sold his land, or chose a particular path.
But sometimes, you don’t have to wonder. Sometimes, he can tell you himself.
It’s a family historian’s dream to find actual evidence of your ancestor’s thoughts, motivations, or beliefs. They could be reported in a newspaper article or recorded in court documents, but if you are really lucky, you find something they wrote themselves in a journal or a letter.
But where do you find these things?
We usually inherit these kinds of treasures. But for ancestors many generations back, these personal documents could have ended up with a distant cousin you’ve never met—if they survived at all. However, there is one more option—the local library.
Check to see if your ancestors might have left their personal papers in the care of a local library, archive, or historical society, especially if they were prominent members of their community. A family’s personal papers, such as diary entries, household accounts, and financial documents, go a long way in revealing what it was like to live in an ancestor’s shoes.
While researching Tony Goldwyn’s tree, that is exactly what we found—the papers of Tony’s third great-grandparents Nathaniel Coe and Mary Taylor White—at the Oregon Historical Society.
It became evident early on in our research that the Coes were not just a simple farming family. Nathaniel Coe worked as a lawyer in New York and was a prominent member of his community there, as was his wife, Mary. In fact, Mary was heavily involved in the creation of the Nunda Female Reform Society. As active members of their community, the Coes enjoyed a certain amount of notoriety, both in their native New York and later in Oregon, where they moved after Nathaniel was appointed as a postal agent. This reform-minded family played a big role in establishing the town of Hood River in Oregon, and it was because of their role as pioneers in this town that many of their personal papers were donated to the Oregon Historical Society. These papers proved invaluable in learning many personal details about this family that would have otherwise been lost.
For example, Lawrence Coe traveled from New York to Oregon in 1851. His wife did not join him in Oregon until 1853, and it was initially assumed that she, like thousands of others during this time period, joined a wagon train along the Oregon Trail. This proved not to be the case, and her true story was revealed through her personal papers. Instead of going overland, Mary (White) Coe and three of her sons traveled by ship, sailing down the eastern coast of the United States and then crossing the Isthmus of Panama by mule, before boarding a steamer to San Francisco. From there, Mary and her sons took a steamer to Portland. Mary’s youngest child, Henry, was only nine years old and suffered a serious illness throughout his journey.
Without the first-person perspective provided through Nathaniel and Mary’s personal papers, we likely never would have known about the adventures of the Coe family throughout their lives in New York and Oregon.
Tips from Ancestry ProGenealogists:
Could your ancestor’s personal papers be hidden away in a local archive? Here are some tips for finding out.
- Investigate your tree for ancestors with interesting and civic-minded occupations. Look for clergymen, politicians, doctors or midwives, newspapermen, businessmen, and the like. Also, your more well-to-do ancestors are more likely to have left their papers with a local repository.
- Get acquainted with the community your ancestor lived in by reading contemporary newspapers to learn the prominent members of the area.
- Check NUCMC, the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections. This bibliographic catalog describes these types of holdings for libraries and archives across the United States.
- Don’t check for just your ancestors. You might find them mentioned in the collected papers of friends, neighbors, and associates.
Learn more about Tony’s journey or watch episode recaps from previous seasons on TLC.com. Watch more celebrities discover their family history on all-new episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? Sundays 10|9c on TLC.