Surnames of formerly enslaved people can add a lot of confusion when trying to piece together families. Many enslaved individuals were denied an official surname prior to emancipation, and the adoption of surnames following freedom did not follow any prescribed method. In some cases, the surname of the former slave owner was either adopted by choice or assigned to them in the first records in which they appear as free individuals. Continue reading Slave surnames
I have agonized over what I would say in a blog post that would speak to the gravity of where our nation is today. I question if it is my place to say anything or if this is even the forum to do so. The more I debated in my head, the more convinced I became that I needed to write something, if only to amplify the voices of those speaking out against the racism they face every day.
If you are anything like me, you have spent the last couple weeks at home with little faces staring at you for attention while you try to get work done. Quarantine has proved particularly challenging for parents of school-age and younger children as we added homeschooling to our day jobs, all within the confines of our homes. The mom groups I am a part of have been sharing activity ideas to keep kids engaged and occupied. I realized a lot of them can be adapted with a family history theme to use this time to learn about our families and our history: Continue reading Quarantined kids and family history
A popular image exists of Native Peoples meeting the passengers of the Mayflower as a first contact scenario where the indigenous populations in what would become New England saw Europeans for the first time. This is a romantic myth designed to create warm feelings of a cooperative relationship leading to the first Thanksgiving. In fact, the Native populations in New England had already met European fishermen and traders nearly a century before the Mayflower arrived at Plymouth and their interactions with Europeans made them wary of the newcomers. Continue reading Before the Mayflower
While I was in graduate school, I wrote my dissertation on tribal museums and the ways they share authority with the communities that they serve. I focused my research on the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation known by the people who call it home as Akwesasne, which translates to “Where the Partridge Drums.” I was honored to spend many years getting to know the place and its people.
“You are on Mohawk Land.”
You know you are in Akwesasne as soon as you arrive because there are large signs on the roads leading into the reservation that read “You are on Mohawk Land.” They have good reason to assert their claim to the land since they have had to defend their right to live and move freely within their own reservation for centuries. Continue reading Where the Partridge Drums
Unfortunately, over the last month I had to visit a few different funeral homes. On one visit, my husband asked why funeral homes always resembled a house. Knowing a bit about the evolution of how we handle death in America, I explained that it is because a wake or viewing used to take place within the person’s home. Funeral “parlors” or “homes” are intentionally designed to resemble the parlors in homes where we once laid out our dead for visitation.
This question led me to revisit some of my old studies about death in America and how handling the dead went from being a very personal and hands-on experience for the survivors to something that is handled by professionals outside of the home. Continue reading Facing death
I grew up with an understanding that I had German and Irish roots. My paternal grandfather would often pull out a few German phrases he learned from his grandparents. On my mother’s side my cousins and I all took great pride in being “Kiley girls.” While these identities were strong in my upbringing, it wasn’t until I was older that I realized my most recent immigrant ancestor was not German or Irish, but Czech – an identity that was not impressed upon me at all.
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. Continue reading Genealogical lessons
I have traced my husband’s paternal line back to Anthony Siekman, who was born in Germany about 1821. I knew from his petition for naturalization that he arrived in the United States in 1852, but I did not know much beyond that. As the progenitor of this line in America, I have Anthony to thank for the surname I carry after marriage and the name my children will carry into the world. Perhaps this is the reason why I first took an interest in piecing together the details of his life, but what I discovered was a tragic story that led to more questions. Continue reading Bittersweet discoveries
[Editor’s note: This blog post originally appeared in Vita Brevis on 2 February 2016.]
From tracing free people of color in New England to identifying former slaves in the deep south, NEHGS can help you tell your family story. We have a number of guides and tools in our library and available through our education department and online databases that can help you jump start researching your African American roots all over the United States, not just New England. Continue reading ICYMI: Tracing your African roots at NEHGS