This is a guest post by Linda Barnickel.
Hundreds of thousands of records and manuscripts in their original form are housed in archives throughout the country. Archives, as used in this post, refers to unique, unpublished records of government, organizations, businesses or other institutions.
So, how do you go about identifying a collection of interest? Archives are all about context, so it is important to construct your search in a contextual manner.
Without realizing it, many genealogists may already be using a similar process. Have you used county records in your research? Maybe a will, deed, or court record? If so, then you have already used a contextual method of research, even if you don’t realize it. Let’s break it down into steps, as illustrated by the following diagram:
If you’ve done much genealogical research, you probably already know to focus your search on a specific county. Then you limit your search further by identifying the office which created or controlled the record of interest, in this case, the Register of Deeds. From there, you identify the type of record, such as a deed, and you may limit your search to a specific time period or volume. Creating your search in this manner may have been almost unconscious, but the point is, you did not begin your search by looking for an individual’s name. Yes, eventually, once you got to the record book, you likely consulted an index which directed you to a page where you could then find your relative’s name – but in reality this was nearly the last step, not the first.
Likewise, when seeking information at an archives, search based upon the context of your ancestor’s life. Was he a barber? a dentist? a professional wrestler? States, counties, or cities may have required these occupations to be licensed. A list of licensed occupations from the Archives of Michigan serves as one example.
Let’s look at another example of using a contextual search. Instead of searching directly for my ancestor’s name, Jonathan Griffith – I’ll try a broader search, just looking for the county where he lived, Smith County, Tennessee.
His signature was found on an 1834 petition to the Tennessee legislature from residents of Smith and neighboring counties, seeking the creation of a new county. In this particular instance, a short summary of the petition’s purpose is available at the Tennessee State Library and Archives (TSLA) website. This alerted me to the existence of this petition, helped me locate it, and guided me in determining that this might be a promising resource to check. Although the summary from TSLA did not provide a comprehensive list of names for the 200 people who signed this document, because I knew my ancestor lived in an area of Smith County that later became part of the new county of DeKalb, I knew there was a good chance that I might find his name on this document. (Source: Petition #46, 1834, Legislative Petitions (microfilm), Record Group 60: General Assembly Original Bills, Petitions, Reports, etc., Tennessee State Library and Archives.)
Did you ever consider looking for your ancestor of modest means in the papers of the governor? The case of Dolly Adcock, of Walterhill, Tennessee provides an example.
In May 1918, she beseeched Governor Tom Rye to get her husband, Eddie, out of the Army. She was in poor health and had just had a baby. She wanted Eddie to come home to care for her and their growing family, and work on the farm. Dolly’s cramped script and unorthodox spelling allow us a glimpse into her world.
Gov. Rye’s businesslike, typed letter is in contrast, and his reply makes it clear that he was powerless to fulfill her plea, even if he had been so inclined. Military service was a federal matter, not one subject to the governor’s influence. It’s not known what happened to Dolly, her children, or her husband – but her faded letter speaks volumes.
How did I find it? How might you go about finding something similar in any state or time period? Then, as now, ordinary citizens often made their opinions known to government representatives, including the governor of their state. Today, most governors’ papers are to be found in individual state archives. Most of these archives have also created what are called “finding aids,” which serve as a guide to research.
In the case of Dolly Adcock, because the governor’s correspondence is filed alphabetically by correspondent’s surname, I simply went to the governor’s correspondence from 1918, found the appropriate file for her part of the alphabet, and searched there. (See page 7 of the finding aid, which refers to microfilm roll 8, box 18, folder 4. These two letters mentioned above appear on frames 1008-1010 of the microfilm.)
Other governors in different places and times may have filed their records by topic or county. If that had been the case here, I might search for the topic of World War I or the draft, or for Rutherford County, where the community of Walterhill is located.
To be sure, finding an ancestor’s letter in governor’s papers or other archival records is a long shot. It requires time, effort, and often, expense and travel. Still, pleas like that of Dolly Adcock, or letters from other people in the community where your ancestor lived can provide excellent contextual information, even if your own ancestor is never mentioned by name.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Learn more about conducting archival research in this brochure from the Society of American Archivists:
ArchiveGrid, containing descriptions of thousands of archival collections, is an excellent place to begin your search.
Linda Barnickel is a professional archivist and freelance writer. She is the author of the award-winning book, Milliken’s Bend: A Civil War Battle in History and Memory and has written on numerous historical, genealogical, and archives-related subjects. Learn more about her work at www.lindabarnickel.com.