Thursday, November 11, 2010

Still Searching for Elusive Ancestral Information? On The Importance Of Casting A Wide Net

In my prosopography presentation called “Birds of a Feather” (you can read the description here; it’s the sixth one ), I stress the importance of casting a wide net in the search for records about any given ancestor.  After all, we all come into contact with a wide assortment of people throughout our lives and, because of these intersections, information about each one of us is often co-mingled with information about those with whom we interact. 

It is, of course, also true about the information relating to our ancestors.

Beginning genealogists often restrict their searches to their direct-line ancestors, disregarding those ancestral sibs, cousins and the like, so it’s not surprising that they hit brick walls fairly early on in their searches. The idea of undertaking a prosopography-like study – trying to investigate every possible contact – is usually more than they want to consider.

Similarly, in my talk on understanding and using archival collections (it’s the fourth talk on the same page), I emphasize that things are not always where we expect them to be.  Records travel, sometimes surreptitiously.  Institutions purchase records from dealers, often because of what the records relate to, not because of whom they reference or where they’re from. Frankly, archivists and librarians think differently than genealogists when it comes to determining what’s in need of collecting.

So, if the institution collects in the medical field, a nineteenth century physician’s business ledger is of interest, no matter where it’s from or who kept it.

Records also can get lost, then get re-discovered. Provenance is often murky or non-existent. You can never be certain where “the good stuff” will turn up, and if it ever does, it may be far, far from home.

Years ago, researchers could spend years looking for things without success because (a.) the records they needed were not were they expected them to be and (b.) the net they cast in search of records or ancestral contacts wasn’t quite wide enough. 

Institutional digitization projects are helping to close that gap.

Case in point - The University of Chicago Library’s Special Collections Research Center has undertaken a major digitization initiative to make large parts of their archives and manuscript collections more accessible to researchers. Online finding aids provide researchers with links to actual record images from a variety of collections. You can read more about the project here.

This afternoon, I discovered the digitized Thomas Winston Papers.  Winston, an Illinois surgeon born in Wales who served during the Civil War then moved to Lawrence, Kansas, was in charge of the hospital for Union troops in Danville, Kentucky.  Of course, not all soldiers who were treated and who died in the hospital were from Illinois.  Browsing part of this collection turned up several interesting “finds” illustrating the points I mentioned above.

A perusal of Box One, Folder Five, titled “Military Effects of Deceased Soldiers” showed that it contains 90 pages of information relating to soldiers who died in Winston’s hospital.

What kind of information?  While much of it is businesslike and routine – inventory lists or clothing items, receipts for shipping personal effects – one item stood out.

The item was a letter from David Eshleman of Bedford County, Pennsylvania (page 52 of 90), who wrote to Dr. Winston on February 23, 1863, enquiring about his son Benjamin’s personal effects. He wrote:

Dier sir I am informed that My son Benjamin F. Eshleman Dide at that place and was buried and it was very painful News to me I shood have been glad to have seen Him before he dide but his illness was two short for me to see that if you wood be so kind to me Lett me know what is become of his Efects that He had at his death I wood like to know if you cood Give me any information conserning them you Wood Ablidge me

Shortly after receiving the letter, Winston prepared an inventory of Benjamin Eshleman’s personal effects - $28.00 in cash, plus clothing – and noted on the inventory that Eshleman died in his hospital (Hospital No. 2, Danville) on the 18th of January 1863. This inventory is page 37of 90.

There are also digitized images of two receipts from the Adams Express Company, one dated March 10, 1863 for the $28.00 that Winston sent to David Eshleman and another dated March 13th for a box sent to Eshleman containing his son’s few items of clothing.

Although Benjamin F. Eshleman died young and unmarried, several of his siblings married and had children.  Chances are, this poignant letter from David Eshleman is one of the few – and perhaps the only – examples of his letter-writing that his descendants may ever see.  For anyone tracing this family, it would be a great find.

Digitization does indeed make things more accessible.  Nonetheless, researchers still need to think through their research conundrums, turning over every possible rock in search of records. The Eshleman letter is far, far from home, in an unlikely collection.

Here’s the link to the Thomas Winston Papers  .  This link will take you to the folder containing the letter from David Eshleman.  It’s page 51.

No matter the nature of your research project, remember to think broadly and cast a wide net for information.

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