June, 2015 — Over the years, historians have used many methods to try to tell the story of one family, one block, one village, one generation. They pore through government documents, old newspapers, Census records. They seek out diaries, letters, and narratives, published or otherwise. In recent years, the methods and tools of family history research have been added to the mix to further complement more traditional historical methods.
For History Professor Kendra Taira Field, incorporating the methods of family history has allowed her to use the stories of her family to reflect on larger trends in American history. For example, in “ ‘Grandpa Brown Didn’t Have No Land:’ Race, Gender, and an Intruder of Color in Indian Territory,” she used letters, family stories, and genealogical details, coupled with archival and secondary sources, to understand the life of her great-great grandfather Thomas Jefferson Brown, a mixed raced man who sought his fortune in the Indian lands of post-Civil War Oklahoma.
While Professor Field could have pulled together a rich portrait of the competing identities and ideas of citizenship in post-Civil War America without using family history, her research is much richer for being able to trace the names and dates of her ancestors, and to weave her family’s history into a larger tapestry.
This January, Tisch Library started subscribing to Ancestry (commonly known as Ancestry.com) not only to support Professor Field’s research but also to meet the needs of many others across campus using family history approaches to answer historical questions. Using Ancestry, in addition to Census data, newspapers, and secondary sources, Professor Reed Ueda’s students will be able to pull together a picture of life in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the early 20th century.
For their final assignment, students in Dr. Scott Spencer’s Ex College class “Generation Great-Great-Grandparent: Discovering Your History” will research the life stories of one of their great-great-grandparents to shed light on the question of what it means to be part of a generation. There are family history projects in Hedda Harari-Spencer’s classes, too, where students have to research a relative they have never met and write a short paper in Hebrew on their life and times.
While we subscribed to Ancestry to support all of these curricular and research needs across campus, it certainly doesn’t preclude others from investigating when dear old Auntie Martha arrived in Ellis Island.
Image credit: Records of the Public Health Service. (90-G-125-29) / US GOV National Archives, 1908. Available via Wikimedia Commons. [Public domain]