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Genealogy is Cool Now!

Updated: Jun 13

A poster board with sticky notes, notecards, and string tracing a family lineage
Some of our own genealogical research!

To all history buffs and archivists, the public has spoken! You can crawl out of your labs and libraries and step into the light because History just became cool. Over the past couple of years, genealogy has become quite popular. From ancestral research subscriptions like Ancestry.comand one’s free yall!), tothe PBS television series, Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates Jr., so many have found a revitalized interest in our past. So put on your dorkiest archeology hat and grab a shovel because we're doing a deep dig into the utterly revealing obsession that is genealogy.

Genealogy, What the Heck Is That?

At the start of the month, we discussed what it takes to be an archaeologist (Click here to review.) and last week we even talked about what TerraX does and does not dig up — remember, not dinosaurs! (Click here to check it out!)This week, we are looking at how we can dig into a more familiar past using the processes of genealogy. But what the heck is that? For the curious etymologists out there, the word genealogy is derived from the Greek words genea, meaning descent, family, or generation, and logy, meaning theory, doctrine, or science. So, genealogy could be defined as a “generational science” or a kind of “family doctrine” — aka, “the study of ancestral history, including the tracing of family lineage, origin, and historical development.”Okay, maybe that’s still a little technical. To lay it out more clearly for the rest of us, we talked to one of our master historians (and TerraX royalty), Emma Jackson Pepperman, and she elegantly defined it like this: “Genealogy is a tool to trace human relationships back in time.”

The people who do such tracing using descendancy research and ancestral lineages are called genealogists. Due to various qualifications needed to be considered a professional genealogist according to the National Genealogy Society, some would argue that a genealogist is “tricky” to define. As a recent archivist with a Master’s degree in History and Museum Studies who actively uses genealogical methods in her everyday work as a historian at TerraX, Margaret Schultz claims it can be reductive to “dismiss those who do genealogy research without pay” and instead believes there are such things as “genealogy hobbyists” for those who “dabble” — as she says with an expression of clear passion, “I dabble!” Let's dabble a bit ourselves, shall we?

TerraX Dabbles

When conducting a background search for a TerraX project, according to our experienced team of historians, it is typically preferred to use census records to get a decade-by-decade outline of someone’s life, which we can fill in with other sources like, city directories, and even everyday newspapers from digital archives like Margaret says, with a fervent enthusiasm, “It’s amazing the stuff you can piece together with little newspaper articles,” adding, “wedding announcements and obituaries are gold mines!”

An Alabama census record from the year 1870 with long list of carefully written names
Our historians comb through tons of census records like these.

Here at TerraX, genealogy is used throughout different departments for various cases including cemetery removals, National Register of Historic Places criteria and land use analysis, and Phase III historical mitigations (just to name a few). “Recently I have been working on a lost cemetery project,” says Emma “which, until recently, had no archeological or historic record, and, having been abandoned, was lost to natural growth that swallowed the headstones. To rediscover the cemetery and the individuals buried there, we had to use historical research (such as deed and plat maps) as well as genealogical research to verify the family members and connect the family cemetery to the landowners throughout time.” Emma surmises that, “Without the ability to use genealogical skills, our historic analysis would significantly suffer and would not be up to snuff.”

Genealogy is like the sharper trowel needed to dig just a little bit deeper. It is through genealogical tactics such as this that TerraX is able to successfully move projects forward quickly and respectfully, always considering those of the past and the present.

In Consideration of Our Past

At TerraX, we believe in the benefits of our research, and we believe in doing it well. Through genealogy, we can rediscover ancestral roots and traditions that were once lost.Who knows, you may even find a new respect for your own family history. (Anything is possible!) Margaret says “one of the biggest factors” in genealogy is “how ‘you’ came to be where you are.” She goes on — it can be “meaningful to find out where one comes from and how they came into their own living situation.”

Margaret was first introduced to genealogy when researching the infamous Rhonda Bell Martin, a notorious serial killer from Alabama. (Talk about a killer introduction! – definitely coming back to this in the near future.) As a graduate student, Margaret worked with genealogies in her research on an antebellum town called Old Cahawba, Alabama. Although the town was briefly the state capital, it was slowly abandoned after the Civil War and turned into an archaeological park. Through their hard work, the park’s historians (thank you historians!) discovered an abundance of evidence for its mostly white descendants. However, what the park wanted to know was, What about black descendants? What about those who were previously enslaved but were now-free residents who had remained in the area? Our trusty historians, Margaret and Emma explain it for us.

Margaret says that because they had been enslaved, the free black residents commonly did not have a record of last names. “Unlike European Americans, who may have the written record to trace their family heritage back to the 1500s or further,” Emma specified, “African and Native Americans may not be able to trace their ancestry further back than 200 years ago due to to the lack of care shown to their ancestors by those responsible for recording that history and lineage.”

A poster board with sticky notes, notecards, and newspaper clippings tracing a family lineage
Sometimes genealogy research is best done with a visual aid.

But there’s some good news. Thanks to the thorough genealogical search by Margaret, a bit of time, and “some creativity with spelling,” Margaret was able to trace a black family by the name of Lundy from Cahaba to other places in Alabama, and, “as time went on,” to other areas across the country via the Great Migration! “It was cool to watch this family live through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and participate in important historic events,” says Margaret.

Emma also participated in a genealogical project which she considers to be of great importance to Euro, Native, and African Americans alike. In her undergrad at the University of Alabama, she was involved in a project with the History professor, Dr. Gwendolyn Midlo Hall titled, Alabama Memory. The project aimed “to identify lynching events and name the victims of such crimes.”Under haunting images of local Tuscaloosa locations, the project opens with a powerful statement.

“The black men, women, and children who were lynched died twice to history.

First, when their lives were taken by lynch mobs;

and again, when history failed to record their story.”

Emma respectfully researched the lineage of two lynching victims, a 23-24 year old farm laborer by the name of Cooper Short, and an unknown black man from Carthage, Alabama. In her search through newspaper articles Emma says that originally, all that was known was that of Cooper Short, specifically his “sex, race, county, the year of death, and five letters of his name, ‘Short.’ However, once all the [newspaper] clippings were printed out, compared, and grouped by theme, date and locale, I realized that two separate murders were actually being described.” Both of the victims were lynched by white men within three days of eachother “for allgedly ‘ravishing’ a white woman” in 1884. Although Emma was only able to name the identification of one victim, she stresses the importance of her work saying, “Without genealogical research, I would not have been able to verify my hypothesis, and [even] Cooper Short would have remained an unnamed victim.”

Emma goes on to warn that, “Genealogies can be just as skewed from certain populations.” She says, “In the US, this is a privilege, often left only to European Americans,” who, in her professional opinion, “constructed the value in lineage to diversify themselves from those who are unable to trace their ancestry back.” Emma made a point to note this saying, “This is really important to me — [to] keep this in mind so we don't repeat the narrative.” Emma continues – “Historians like Dr. Gwendolyn Midlo Hall are working incredibly hard to” for example, “rediscover ancestral links to Africa” through projects like the Afro-Louisiana History and Genealogy, which have brought to light detailed Atlantic slave port records (inlcuding gender, origin, family relationships) from the French and Spanish that were previously undocumented by the British.

Margaret, stepping in with her own opinion, says that “[Genealogy] can give you a better sense of a person if you know where they came from.” She admits that some historians might disagree and may say, and we quote, ‘Eh,’ but she believes genealogy is just another way in which we tell the story of us. Many historians, like the excellent ones we’ve heard from today, hope to learn from the recorded and non-recorded histories — not just “to trace individual and family lineage,” but to always be considered in respect to our past and the betterment of our future.

Partaking in Your Own Genealogy

With this acknowledgement of historical bias, at TerraX, we encourage others to investigate their own individual genealogy with a respectful consideration for those stories not yet uncovered. “It’s a great way to simply learn about the average person,” Margaret says.

Through her own research on the Schultz Family, Margaret uncovered mostly doctors on her mother’s side, revealing a background in medicine that tracks all the way back to the Civil War! (Not excluding a “cousin with a sort of sketchy, less-respected medical degree.”)

Emma did her own research as well saying, “I haven't fleshed out my fathers side of the family, but my mother’s side has been living in Alabama and Georgia since the early 1800s. One of my great great, or great great great, grandfathers was the Alabama Superintendent of education, which I think is cool! I also have two ancestors named ‘Flora,’ which I think is a beautiful name!!” (It’s the simple pleasures like these that keep genealogy alive.)

An excel spreadsheet with a family tree listing six generations
Have you ever tried reconstructing your own family tree?

But we’re not done yet! If you’re interested in doing your own search or becoming an ancestral history buff like some of us here at TerraX, we’ll attempt to lay it out for you. For the hobbyist, when conducting your own family search, we recommend starting with your older living relatives such as your grandparents or great grandparents, “Heck! It can be a few years, just know what decade your parents are from and it will actually lead you places.” says Margaret. For further detail, in her opinion, the Census Records are one of the best starting points to find names, years, and households, calling them, “the backbone of genealogy.” We were also informed that the Census only releases individual census records every 72 years after the next Census is recorded, and it was just this year that the 1950/1940s census was released. At TerraX, we are proudly nerding out. “Your grandparents will be on this census!” says an eager Margaret, seeing it as “a whole new datapoint.”

“Here is my advice,” says Emma, “Start with your relatives’ last names and maiden names,'' emphasizing the importance of spell check as “they may change from person to person.” She then recommends moving on to approximate birth days, occupations, past residences, and even burial locations. From there, you can do a similar search for their marriage partners, siblings and neighbors.

These are some great places to get started, but if you really want to make a career in genealogy, according to experts from the Americas to the UK, it is recommended to start with a basic education and become knowledgeable of social and local history in the original and digital forms. Be sure to choose the right course of study with a history degree or a library and archive experience. It can also be helpful to hone in on specifics like Palaeography (We had to google that one — and we recommend you do too!) and even a course in Latin.

We Leave You With This:

It used to be that storytelling, the written word, and even pictographs, were ways in which we recorded our past, but now, through genealogy, we can not only uncover this past but re-discover even more about the present. At TerraX, we hope you will be able to use genealogy to your own benefit, whether it be professionally or personally. And so, as you traverse down into the rabbit hole that is genealogy, we leave you with this quote from the kooky self-searching story of Alice in Wonderland: “Who in the world am I?’ Ah, that's the great puzzle!”

If you want to hear more from our fabulous historians at TerraX, learn more about genealogy, or just ask our newest author about her big break into blogging, please feel free to reach out! We’re on Facebook, Instagram, or LinkedIn, and we love hearing from you!

Until next time, happy digging!

— The TerraX Team


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