Family History Research

The Value of Studying History Today

Going through old notes I came across a lecture I attended in the fall of 1999 at the Chicago Humanities Festival.  The theme that year was “Old and New” and incorporated many lectures about history.  One such lecture was “History’s Value Today,” presented by four historians:  Johnathan Clark, John Milton Cooper, Michael Kammen, and David Kennedy.

Clark explored the idea that history has big underlying themes. It is complex and can be used for scholarship to teach or propaganda to sway public opinion. Cooper argued that people expect to get certain knowledge out of history. Kammen took the stand that history should be studied because it is necessary to see the whole human experience. Doing so allows people to know where they are now and where they came from. Kennedy argued that history helps us see who we are and what makes us different from others.  From a family historian’s perspective, Kammen and Kennedy’s arguments should be understood so we may better write our ancestors stories.

Kammen’s stand that history should be studied to see the whole human experience is crucial to family historians.  We must look at the historical context of our ancestors to have some understanding of their values; the choices they made; the lives they lived; and the beliefs and ideas that were passed down to their children, and in some cases, to their present day descendants.  Without looking at the historical context, we could make assumptions and judgments about the kind of person our ancestor was, that may be incorrect.

An example about making judgments about an ancestor can be taken from my husband’s Italian side. His great uncle, Fortunato Fratto, was born about 1869 in Italy, was educated, and held a job as a customs agent. He immigrated to the United States three separate times in the late 1890’s before settling permanently in Chicago. Here, in Chicago he worked for the city as a Street Cleaner.  In an interview in the 1980’s with his daughter, Rose, at the University of Illinois at Chicago for the Italian Project, Rose describes her father as a very strict, demanding, almost dictator-like father figure. She describes how the children would kneel at his feet at bedtime, kiss his hand and ask for his blessing.  She goes on to describe how his word was law and if you disobeyed or spoke against him, you were sometimes hit. She also describes how he felt degraded working as a Street Cleaner and how he disliked living near undesirables (people he considered lower class).

Without understanding the historical time period, one might compare him to a father in the present day and believe Fortunato was the devil himself.  What kind of father behaves this way? Was he prejudice? Were some of those beliefs passed down to his children? When you examine the time period and his ethnicity, you see that class and standing were very important to Italian men.  In Italy he was considered petty-bourgeoisie due to his education and occupational standing.  In the United States, he was considered to be in the lower class because of his job, earnings, and language skills. As head of the house, the Italian father’s word was law. And in the early 1900’s in Chicago, ethnic groups tended to live together in certain areas of the city. While there was some mixing of ethnicities within an area, typically a street would divide one ethnic group from another, keeping the “undesirables” from being too close. The whole historical picture must be examined in order to form more correct assumptions about the lives of our ancestors. By not looking at the whole picture, how could we understand what life was like for our ancestors and their descendants?

Looking at Fortunato’s life leads into Kennedy’s desire for us to understand that history helps us see who we are and what makes us different from others.  From the standpoint of looking at our immigrant ancestors, it is easier to see “who they were.” We can see what their ethnic beliefs and values were. We can see how they were different from other ethnicities. Once our ancestors became part of the melting pot, and ethnicities, beliefs and values were merged, “who we are” becomes a complex make-up of those beliefs and values.  Going a step beyond looking solely at “who we are” based on ethnicity, I think we need to examine “who we are” based on being American. Who are we in the present day? How are we different from people of other countries? How are we similar and different from our assimilated and American-born ancestors?  All these questions generate new insights into our family histories and provide new research paths.

Studying history today and incorporating it into our family histories, allows us to present a more historically complete narrative and make fewer incorrect judgments.  It allows us to view the people as they were during the time in which they lived, rather than what we wish them to be based on our present day experiences. That is the value of studying history today.

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Illinois Regional Archives Depository – a wonderful resource

I am preparing to visit the Illinois Regional Archives Depository (IRAD) at Northern IL University on Monday to research for a client. When I visited the IRAD at Northeastern IL University a few weeks ago, my son and I were the only ones there. In the past I have always sent letters requesting record searches as I did not have time to run up for one record, but after experiencing the archives, it is a place I plan to utilize as much as possible.

In Illinois there are several IRAD branches that cover certain counties in the state.  You can view the IRAD Region Map and click on one of the branches (NEIU, NIU, WIU, ISU, UIS, EIU, SIU, to see which county records are held. The map is color coded by region.

To find out what records each repository holds you can click the blue bar on the left that says IRAD Local Government Records Database and click search. You can either search by county or repository or type of record.  The website says, This database provides a listing of the local governmental records held by the Illinois Regional Archives Depository (IRAD) system. Local governmental records include those from county, city, town, village, and township levels throughout Illinois. Numerous offices are represented from these levels. The record holdings of the IRAD system include over 5,400 different record series.

For each record series the following information is included: depository, accession number, title, county, beginning date and ending date.”

Many of the branches hold early birth, marriage and death records; naturalization records; probate and will records; in addition to local governmental records like court; license and permit registrations.

If you cannot visit an IRAD branch in person, you can write to them requesting up to two names to be researched at a time. They do charge a copy fee, minimum $1, even if they only copy one page. They will bill you when they send your copy(ies). They will also send sheets listing additional resources in the county(ies) you are researching.

IRAD is a wonderful system in the State of Illinois. Check it out if you have Illinois ancestors.

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Preparing for another research trip

Thursday I am taking my oldest son to Springfield, IL, to do a little research in the State Archives. He is actually excited about going and learning a few new things. We are also going to check out a lot of the Lincoln sites and activities while we are there. This morning I stumbled upon a branch of the family that lived in Montgomery County, IL. The IRAD at University of Illinois-Springfield, has some records I am interested in looking at. Might have to add that to our to-do list. Luckily we will stay over night and so have plenty of time to do what we want. The younger boys are not so thrilled they are staying home with dad, but when they are older, hopefully I can take them on little trips like this.

For Thursday, I have prepared a six page list of death certificates I want to locate for myself and a few other people. For IRAD I have a listing of record types they hold and if we can get over there, plan to search for as much as we have time to. Springfield isn’t that far so if we had to go down again this fall to research more, that would be fine.

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The Narrative Lineage

I received my Board for Certification of Genealogists Certification Application Guide a few week ago and since then, have been trying to figure out what to do first. I decided to work on the Narrative Lineage, Kinship Determination Project Requirement 7. I have to document three generations of a family and provide two proof summaries of relationships. What I am quickly learning is I have many holes in my research where the additional lines are concerned. The main line and children are very well documented.  It is the second and third generations where the gaps are obvious.

What I am now doing is going back through my files, my tree, and online resources to document what I can and make lists of the documents I need to track down at the various libraries and repositories in the area. That research has also led me down a couple new paths to link families in southern Illinois to my Chicago families. And I’m finding very interesting information.

If you want to figure out where you have holes in your research, start writing your narrative lineage and it will quickly become obvious.

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