Who Are All These People?

Bowman Family, near Webster, Maryland, c. 1926.

I’ve been addicted to Ancestry.com for the past 4 years. This means I took out a fairly pricey monthly online subscription to maintain about 3,500 names, histories, and links to digital documents that make up my family history. Perhaps genealogy is seen as the domain of the retiree, but I’m fascinated by this collection of folks within which I have nothing in common but DNA. Back when I worked at a small local history organization with a genealogical library, we had a term for its users: Genies. And now I’ve become one of them. While I toyed with genealogy before, a request from a cousin spurred me to get serious. He and I don’t have too much in common. I was National Honor Society and graduated college in three years; he fell in with the wrong crowd, struggled to graduate high school, and has been having trouble finding his way.  He asked about our family history and I thought, I have those skills, maybe this is something over which we can connect. And so it began.

WT Lee. The case is inscribed with the date, October 13, 1868.

I hear hardcore library hound pre-Ancestry Genies scoffing. It’s true, Ancestry is only as good as the people inputting info. There’s a lot of incorrect information, duplicate people, and misspelled names. Historical documents have to back up the whole process. But the program itself is addictive. The moment you add a person (like one of your great-grandmothers) and the Ancestry search engine finds related records, a little shaking leaf will sprout on the screen. Hours later, you’ve clicked through hundreds of leaves, accumulating birth dates, copies of census records, and a pile of names, which without the program you have no hope of remembering. It’s a brilliant scheme by those folks in Utah, for all sorts of reasons I’ll discuss some other time.

Screenshot from my Ancestry.com page, March 2012. Note the insidious little leaves…

I’m lucky to be able to research my family history, where so many people cannot hope to begin. Some families came to the U.S. recently, others were disrupted by war, communism, poverty, and immigration, while other families are not from Europe and have yet to be included. Large chunks of my family have lived in the American colonies since the early 1600s and therefore are easily searched through their program.

Daniel Ralph Danforth, Augusta, Maine,c. 1893.

I don’t intend for my genie posts to be “guess who I found today! My great great great great….. great great great grandfather!” There are already several blogs out there celebrating those discoveries. Instead, I’ll offer a few interesting stories, ones that illustrate poverty, real family life in the good old days, women’s history, and the like. More to follow.

About Becky Fifield

Becky Fifield is a cultural heritage professional with 25 years experience in institutions large and small. She is currently Head of Collection Management for the Special Collections of the New York Public Library. An advocate for preventive conservation, Ms. Fifield is a Professional Associate of the American Institute for Conservation, Chair of the AIC Collection Care Network, and former Chair of Alliance for Response NYC. She is also a scholar of 18th century female unfree labor and dress. There's a bit of pun in the title The Still Room, delineating a quiet space brimming with the ingredients of memory, where consideration, analysis, and wordcraft can take place. Ms. Fifield’s interests include museum practice, dress history, historic preservation, transit, social and women’s history, food, current events, geneaology, roadtrips, and considerations on general sense of place. Becky and her husband, Dr. V, live in the Hudson Valley.