Genealogical lessons

A poster dated April 24, 1851, warning colored people in Boston to beware of authorities who acted as slave catchers. Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Many genealogists will tell you that they get absorbed into the world of the ancestors they are researching. Often one can’t help but recreate their environment and the things they experienced while seeking out documents that help piece together that puzzle. Due to the nature of my work, for me this means coming face to face with the realities of slavery and colonization nearly every day.

Slavery research can be difficult logistically as I try to piece together the lives of ancestors where little documentation exists. The harder aspect of the work is emotional, particularly when it means going page by page through slavery registers of children to find an ancestor recorded among them. Regardless of the challenges, it is important work that has provided me with a much deeper understanding of our past as a nation and the continuing implications of that history on our present.

Recently an article in Newsweek highlighted the lack of knowledge about slavery by high schoolers in the United States. The statistics presented were not as shocking to me as they should have been. Remembering my own formal education and my previous work teaching undergraduates provided me my own personal experiences that mirrored the findings in the report. The lack of focus in schools on slavery and colonization is what drove me to research the things history books weren’t telling me, for this information is essential to understanding all other aspects of our national history.

Slavery research can be difficult logistically as I try to piece together the lives of ancestors where little documentation exists.

All of this got me wondering about how genealogy can help bridge the gap in our understanding of these very sensitive and difficult topics. High schoolers and the general public are much more likely to feel the gravity of colonization and slavery when they are faced with the people who lived through it rather than statics in a book. Exercises such as researching specific slave laws to determine what records may be available for an ancestor help take the “big” political and legal history down to the individual level. This helps to humanize history and makes us realize how the past plays a role in the present.

Title page of the first edition (1663) of John Eliot's translation of the Holy Bible.

Last week many members of the NEHGS staff spent the day learning from a member of the Wampanoag Nation about the realities of colonization to better understand the work we do as a genealogical society, particularly as we approach the four-hundredth anniversary of the voyage of the Mayflower and the founding of Plymouth Colony. Our training was a positive and eye-opening experience for many in the room, and I am sure will help us research with greater empathy as we look for ancestors who lived in America from colonial times through to the present.

Many of the effects of colonization and slavery are still felt by communities today, and genealogy can provide an avenue for viewing the realities of past and present through the biographies of individuals. Perhaps an exercise in tracing the lives of an enslaved individual and their descendants is one learning method to educate high schoolers and adults about these more difficult elements of our nation’s past.

Meaghan E.H. Siekman

About Meaghan E.H. Siekman

Meaghan holds a Ph.D. in history from Arizona State University where her focus was public history and American Indian history. She earned her B.A. in history from Union College in Schenectady, New York, the city where she grew up. Prior to joining the NEHGS team, Meaghan worked as the Curator of the Fairbanks House in Dedham, Massachusetts, as an archivist at the Heard Museum Library in Phoenix, Arizona, and wrote a number of National Register Nominations and Cultural Landscape Inventories for the National Park Service. Meaghan is passionate about connecting people with the past in meaningful and lasting ways. She enjoys finding interesting anecdotes about an ancestor to help bring the past to life.View all posts by Meaghan E.H. Siekman