I spent a part of my day today searching records on Ancestry and Fold3 for some upcoming oral history interviews at Governors Island. What makes GI so fascinating is that, given its location in New York Harbor and its longterm importance as a military installation, so much of American history can be traced back to it. The Revolution. 1812. The Civil War. The settling of the West. 1898. Both World Wars. Governors Island played a role in all of these, and I don’t mean tangentially; the island and the people who worked on it were central in all of them. One thing that gets lost on some people, including myself at times, is that the people who served on the island were just that, individuals. It is one thing to say that the First Minnesota rushed from Gettysburg to help put down the Draft Riots in 1863, or that the Big Red One left for Europe from the island after the United States entered WW1 in 1917. It is another thing to examine a Census or Pension record of a son or father who was part of it. That is why I love the oral history project so much, even though my role in it is not as large as some other volunteers’.
My growing interest in these projects runs hand-in-hand with my growing interest in tracing my own family history. Visiting the Frederick Douglass house in Anacostia last week intensified this interest. As I mentioned in a previous post, my mother lived in the neighborhood when she was a little girl. After seeing the Washington Navy Yard from the Douglass estate, I had to dig out the above pass that my grandmother once used to visit my grandfather, a civilian employee at the facility. An aunt had given it to me several years ago, along with some old family photos. My grandparents were originally from Boston but moved to DC during the Depression and stayed until 1945 when the Second World War was winding down. They had two daughters in the process before eventually moving back to New England and staying there for good. I would have gotten back to it eventually, but all this is what inspired me to-re-up my Ancestry account. Searching records has pretty much how I have spent my evenings over the past week. I have also emailed some distant relatives to see what they might be able to add. Thankfully, I have been able to answer questions they have as well.
I am old enough now (46) to realize that part of my interest in my family history is because my brother and sister and I were deprived of it. Taken by our parents from the Northeast to Florida when we were young kids, we lost touch with the extended clan. It was not hard to do in the 1970s and 1980s, when we all lived without the internet, cell phones, and everything else that makes the world more interconnected than it used to be. It is amazing how quickly you can strike up a conversation with family, even family you have never met before or seen in thirty years.
What I find most moving, when searching my own family or oral history subjects, is the capsulation of a life into a few documents. Half a decade ago this would not have meant so much to me. I had my perspective changed when my father died four years ago. You cannot helped being moved seeing the dash (e.g. 1938-2009) and wondering what the story was. Whoever we are, you are part of something bigger than ourselves.
Great post Keith. I enjoyed your insights on family history.
I agree with Susan. Excellent post!