Genealogy: Asking the Right Questions
Many of the individuals who visit the Shenandoah Room and Truban Archives come to learn about their family’s history. Some are just beginners. Others are seasoned veterans, looking for elusive individuals. Fortunately, no matter one’s skill level, we have a plethora of resources that more than likely help a researcher discover their ancestors.
However, knowing what questions to ask is often the hardest task. Many researchers get overwhelmed and discouraged by the sheer number of resources available, especially if they can’t find a published work that covers their specific topic.
Fortunately, after centuries of work, historians have figured out what the important questions for their trade (and genealogy) are. Most agree that who, what, when, where, and why are the things we should be asking.
The first four of these are the facts each genealogist looks for, especially when preparing a family tree. Who is my ancestor, when were they born, what did they do, where did they live, who did they marry, when did they die? These who, what, when, and where questions are the most easily developed, the most prolific questions asked, and the easiest to find (if records exist). They lead us to marriage records, historic site surveys, deeds, wills, death records, passenger lists, and an almost infinite list of other sources.
However, genealogists often times become so interested in finding these answers they often overlook the why, which most historians will tell you is the important question we can ask. Why is our effort to understand the people we are researching. Why did your ancestor choose to be a miller instead of a farmer, why did they not get married until late in life, why did they move to a different state, or why did they choose to go to a specific church? This type of question is critically important if we truly want to understand our families beyond just knowing dates and names.
Unfortunately the why questions can also be the most difficult to answer. Very few people in the past took the time to explain why they made any decision, yet alone every single one. However, we do have the resources available to provide answers of sorts. The primary sources housed in the Truban Archives are always a great place to begin. Just because your ancestor may not have left behind records doesn’t mean that a member of their community didn’t. Much can be learned by looking at items from individuals in similar professions, geographic locations, and religions. Secondary sources, especially those interpreting local communities or specific ways of life can also be useful resources to help us answer these why questions by expanding our background knowledge and comparing similarities.
As anyone who has done genealogy or history research can tell you know what questions to ask doesn’t make your task easy. However, it does point you in a direction and shows you a path you can take to learning about your family. So the next time you plan a research trip to the library, or any other location, be sure to know some of the who, what, when, where, and why questions you will ask.
The Election of 1920: Locals and Major Changes
On November 2, 1920 United States citizens went to the polls to elect a president, senators, congressmen, and scores of local officials.
Despite Virginia’s tendency at the time to support conservative Democrats, county residents voted overwhelmingly for the Republican ticket. The election of Warren Harding and the GOP’s sweep of the Senate and House races across the nation were celebrated by the Shenandoah Herald, one of the county’s prominent newspapers. Coverage also included a report on the local congressional race which had been one by a Democrat who the paper accused of buying votes.
Warren G. Harding, http://www.old-picture.com/american-legacy/003/President-Harding-Warren.htm
This election was notable for two reasons. First, it coincided with the first commercial radio broadcast in the United States. Station KDKA in Pittsburg went on air to broadcast the election returns. It was the beginning of mass voice media and live reporting.
KDKA broadcasting microphone, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:KDKA_microphone_on_display.JPG
Second, the election was also the first where women in every state had the right to vote. The 19th amendment to the United States constitution, which prohibited US citizens from being denied the right to vote, had been ratified on August 18th 1920. Virginia, one of only seven states that had not granted women any voting rights, refused to ratify this amendment until 1952.
Cartoon promoting suffrage, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:US_SuffrageSteamrollerCartoon.png
The Shenandoah Herald made no mention of either one of these events during its post-election coverage. Politics would have limited the coverage of female votes. Since the paper had no supported women’s suffrage, and filled its pages with opposition articles as the debate over the amendment raged, the editors would probably not have been willing to promote an event they still felt was a terrible idea.
Shenandoah Herald masthead, ca. 1920. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Barnett_M_Clinedinst_(1837-1900)_obituary_in_the_Shenandoah_Herald_on_December_28,_1900.jpg
Geography was responsible for the paper’s failure to report on the radio broadcast. Shenandoah County’s distance from Pittsburg meant the signals would not have reached the area. In addition, our rural nature isolated the area from the growing radio trend. Few people would have understood what a radio was. So while radios would be all the rage here within a few years, in 1920 it was certainly not something worth reporting on.
Today’s election has many similarities. For the first time a woman has been nominated by a major party. Another form of mass communication, the internet, is having a tremendous impact on the race. How do you think future generations will view this election cycle?
Shenandoah County Library Celebrating Archives Month with "Art in the Archives" Events
October is National Archives month. This is a time when archives, museums, libraries, universities, and historic sites from around the country work to highlight the value of our collections and those who work to preserve them.
Archives in the Commonwealth of Virginia have chosen “Art in the Archives” as the theme of our celebration. This will allow us to promote the archives role in preserving and interpreting the legacy of artists, musicians, and the cultural works they produce.
The Shenandoah County Library, through our Truban Archives, nine local museums, and various other organizations will be hosting several events to promote the value of our local archives and highlight the role they play in our community.
Our celebrations will kick off with the opening of a special exhibit on October 1st. This production will consist of a series of unique pop-up displays. They will feature local paintings, quilts, drawings, earthenware, textiles, and other artistic items. These objects are drawn from the Truban Archives and the collections of six other Shenandoah County Museums. The portions of the exhibit will be on display every Friday and Saturday in October at the following host sites:
· Hupps Hill 9:00AM-5:00PM, 33229 Old Valley Pike Strasburg VA, 22657
· Strasburg Museum 10:00AM-4:00PM, 440 E. King St. Strasburg VA, 22657
· Woodstock Museum 1:00-4:00PM, 104 S. Muhlenberg St. Woodstock VA, 22664
· Shenandoah County Historic Courthouse 11:00AM-4:00PM, 103 N. Main St., Woodstock VA, 22664
· Edinburg Mill: 9:30AM-5:30PM, 214 S. Main St. Edinburg VA, 22824
· CCC Legacy at the Forest Service Interpretive Center: 8:00AM-4:30PM Fridays and 1:00-4:00PM Saturdays, 102 Koontz St, Edinburg, VA 22824
· Shenandoah County Library: Fridays 10:00AM-6:00PM and Saturdays 10:00AM-3:00PM, 514 Stoney Creek Blvd. Edinburg VA, 22824
· Mt. Jackson Museum: Fridays 1:00-4:00PM and Saturdays 10:00AM-4:00PM, 5901 Main St. Mt. Jackson VA, 22842
· New Market Library: Friday 1:00-5:00PM and Saturdays 9:30AM-1:00PM, 160 E. Lee St. New Market VA, 22844
Individuals visiting the exhibit are encouraged to participate in our Archives Month passport program. Visitors can pick up one of these passports at each host site and will receive a stamp for each portion they view. Persons who see all nine pieces of the exhibit will be entered to win a special archives month prize package featuring tickets and gift cards to local attractions. Limit one entry per person.
Children in the community are also invited to our special “Coloring the Past” Archives Month Childrens’ program to be held on October 5th from 4:30PM-5:30PM. During this event participants will be able to create their own art work based on the special items that are part of the “Art in the Archives” Exhibit. The finished products will then be on display in the County Library at Edinburg through October 31st.
On Wednesday, October 5th archivist Zachary Hottel will participate in “Ask An Archivist” Day. This is an opportunity for the public, either in person or via social media, to ask questions about what an archives does, how to preserve your personal collections, ways to connect with local history, and much more. This local segment of an all day, nation-wide event that involves archivists from hundreds of institutions from around the country, will last from 10:00AM-3:00PM. Be sure to use #askanarchivist to follow the conversation on social media.
Finally, every day from October 24th-October 28th between 10:00AM and 1:00PM at the Shenandoah County Library we will be hosting special open house hours for anyone interested in volunteering with or or donating materials tothe Archives or other historic site. Our archivist will be on hand during these periods to give interested individuals a tour of the archives, a behind the scene review of our collections, and to discuss how our volunteer opportunities connect with your interests.
Shenandoah Stories: A New Way to Discover History
The library and archives are happy to highlight the release of our new web based tour site “Shenandoah Stories.” This project, in development for the last four months, is designed to help residents and visitors alike learn about Shenandoah County from their computer or mobile device.
Shenandoah Stories is unlike most history themed websites. Instead of simply listing historic information, this page allows us to “pin” the history of various sites to their physical location and presents the visitor with one large map filled with pictures and interpretation related to sites they want to learn about. This allows visitors to the site to discover historic locations near where they are and where they want to visit. It also allows them to search for sites based on their preferences or by tours created by the archives.
Each entry in Shenandoah Stories is complete with pictures and a description of the historic site. Some, when information is limited, are short. Others are lengthier and contain a wide array of photographs. All are based on in depth research conducted using primary sources, the county’s historic site survey, and published records. They should represent a variety of county lifestyles during a range of time periods.
Herstory: Women in the Past
From May 23 until July 2, the county library and various other organizations are hosting the Library of Virginia’s “Virginia Women in History” Traveling Exhibit. This display, produced annually by the state, highlights eight women in the Commonwealth’s history who are nominated by their localities and selected by the exhibit’s curators.
We invite you to take a look at this exhibit while it tour’s the county, and to discover the history of some local women on panels produced by the archives. A special thank you to the Town of Mt. Jackson, Mt. Jackson Museum, New Market Library, the Hupps Hill Civil War Park, the Town of Woodstock, and the Shenandoah County Historical Society for hosting this exhibit as it travels around the county. For the full schedule you can go to http://tinyurl.com/jglq4zr.
Since this display has been at the library, quite a few visitors have asked about women’s history and how it’s studied. To begin to understand those answers, you must ask yourself the question who are some of the the most important people in our nation’s history? Who is the first person to come to mind? Is it a woman?
The reality is most people would probably name someone like Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, or Harry Truman. Almost no one, including me, would have considered Sacajawea, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Sally Hemings, or Eleanor Roosevelt.
For too long this has been the totality of our historical analysis. Few people consider the role women play shaping our past, instead we move to the more dominant, and easy to find, male figures. If we do think of women’s role in our history, we view them as the housewife, the one dimensional character who performs stereotypical tasks. We even define them in relationship to their male relatives, calling them wife of, sister to, daughter of.
All of this is done on a regular basis and often times we know better. Most of us know that women did more than raise children and clean. They helped lead their families, made independent decisions, and asserted themselves in a society that sought to restrain them. Quilts and cookbooks aren’t the only things they made. Women often produced guns, killed and preserved animals, worked in factories, farmed, and drove wagons and later trucks.
Many were also much more independent than we might think. Throughout the historic narrative, we find stories of women, married and unmarried, who lived their own lives, made their own decisions, and were what some people might call “strong, independent women.” These factors show us one thing, that the role of women in our history is much more complex, and much more vibrant than most of us think. Just looking around at this exhibit, and the women it represents, shows us that.
So why is this reality so easily overlooked? Why is our default historical figure so often a man instead of a woman? It should make sense that women should occupy at least half of our history books, if not more, but they don’t. Women’s letters, diaries, and documents fill our archives, yet they rarely are used. What phenomenon explains all of this?
The reality is for too long the history field chose to ignore women, and a host of other people. And, even though our society has changed the way we look at women over the past five decades, that old history is still around. Those stories about every women cooking, cleaning, and raising children still fill our textbooks, magazines, and television shows. So we hear, read, and see this old history on a regular basis, and it builds within us a narrative that excludes females, or limits them to a singular place in our history. The exhibit we are hosting and our natural curiosity helps us overcome this information deficiency.
So be sure to visit the display before it leaves Shenandoah County. Then check out a resource about women in your community. We have plenty of books you can check out at the library. You can also go online and visit the library of Virginia’s website to learn more about these women or to nominate one for next year’s exhibit.
Going Digital: Bringing the Archives to You
For the past five months staff and volunteers at the Shenandoah County Library have been working hard to bring a large part of our collection to your computer screen. As of today, we are happy to announce that over 1300 items are now available through our website archives.countylib.org. These digital collections include hundreds of newspaper clippings and over 900 postcards featuring pictures from almost every county town and community.
Digital Archives Home Page
Developing this type of online collection is a lot easier than it seems. Since making the decision to create a digital archive, we have completed a long list of steps to make the items accessible, searchable, and informative.
The first step in this process involved selecting an online platform to house the collection. Based on our operational conditions we wanted a program that had a unique web address, was customizable, was searchable, was easy to maintain, and most importantly was free. After evaluating several products, we eventually selected a platform called Omeka. Developed by an academic consortium, Omeka was free, could be housed on our servers, had a wide array of helpful features, and aligned with best practices in the field of archives and digital collections.
The Omeka home page
Once we selected a host platform we then had to decide which materials we would upload. The easy solution to that problem was to simply say we would digitize everything. However, realistically that’s not an option. So we had to look at the collections we have and prioritize what could be placed online. Selecting these materials involved determining the popularity of the items, evaluating how accessible the physical forms are, reviewing copyright restrictions, and assessing how valuable the items were to researchers. Ultimately we selected our newspaper clippings and the Herb Park Postcard collection to be the first two items hosted on the digital platform. These will be followed soon by portions of our yearbook, photograph, and tax book collections.
A postcard from the Herb Park collection
After we had selected which items to digitize the real work began. Scanning items and entering the required metadata to make them accessible and searchable requires an extensive amount of effort and time. Completely scanning the newspaper clippings now available online took approximately two months of dedicated effort. Then another six weeks of staff time was required to enter the metadata that described, numbered, and titled each object. While the 917 postcards in the collection had already been scanned, entering their data took even longer. Often additional research was needed to determine the location of each picture and relevant background information. Eventually though, these items and the stories surrounding the buildings and places they depict emerged and was captured online.
Today the Truban Archives digital collection platform stands ready for use. All are items can be found in a variety of ways. The site can be searched for keywords, you can check out one of our various tags, or find places on a map. Once you find the item you are looking for you can view its description to find out more or upload the picture to view it in it’s fully glory.
Screen shot of an image and its description on the digital archives platform.
In addition to simply providing a way for you to view our digital collections from home, this site gives us several other tools that help us tell the county’s story. It allows us to feature certain items. This means we can promote unique or rare objects that many people have never seen. The site also allows us to create online exhibits. Doing this helps us tie objects together and share deeper stories that one object alone could not tell. Our platform also gives us the opportunity to collect crowd-sourced information. With a large number of objects it is impossible to collect detailed data about each. So we will be asking site visitors to contribute what they know about each object through the comment section. Personal stories and prior research are all welcome. Once they are verified, they will become a part of the description of each object.
So be sure to check out the site when you get a chance! Check out your neighborhood, house, town, or community. See what you can find to help better understand the world around you.
Integration: A Forgotten Topic
On Tuesday, February 23rd I helped our community celebrate black history month by conducting a program entitled Consolidating Lives: Integration in Shenandoah County at the library. In it I discussed not only the integration process but also the segregation system in this area. For almost two months prior, I conducted an extensive amount of research on this topic. During that time, and during the presentation, I realized several important things about the history of this important part of our history.
Photographs of the integration program.
First I realized how little had been written about both segregation and integration in this county. Many writers have covered topics like the Civil War, iron furnaces, German settlers, and churches. Some have even written about slavery and early racial issues. However, almost no one has analyzed race, segregation, or integration efforts in the 20th century despite the impact it had on our society.
This lack of coverage seemed to create a type of amnesia. The bulk the people I talked to, and the majority of county residents seem to have forgotten racial conflict, slavery, and segregation ever existed in this county. Even those who had lived through many of the events I discussed barely seemed to recall them.
However one segment of our society did remember. African Americans, only a small minority in Shenandoah County, not only had the memories needed to tell the story of segregation and integration, but they were also more than willing to share those with anyone who asked. They felt integration events were important and that the segregation system should be understood and interpreted. So they took efforts to make others aware of their memories.
Picture of the historically black neighborhood in Woodstock about which many stores were shared.
The audience at the program reflects this reality. The majority of attendees were African Americans and almost all of them were willing to share their stories. I am sure this fact helped everyone who was at the program, including myself, leave with a better understanding of segregation and integration than they had when they came.
But the question remains, what about the others, those who have forgotten about not only integration but a host of other topics? Are we doing enough to interpret every aspect of our past? Will the people that forget ever see the programs we host, the exhibits we create, or the articles we write? How can those of us in Shenandoah County who like history help everyone, including ourselves, remember? Honestly, I don’t have a definite answer. However I do know one thing, we should always be asking the question if we are to truly understand how the past connects with our present.
George Rye: Hidden History
Inside the history world there is a growing trend to uncover what is known as “forgotten history.” Often this includes those people outside mainstream society such as minorities, women, political dissidents, and the poor. Until recently many of these individuals were ignored by historians who were content to talk about military heroes, notable citizens, and the wealthy. More recently though, museums, historical societies, and professional historians have realized that everyone, no matter what their economic or social status is, deserves to be studied if we are going to truly understand the past.
Recently I had the opportunity to help uncover some of Shenandoah County’s “hidden past” when I did a program on George Rye for the New Market Area Library. Rye, who lived in the 19th century, was an ardent abolitionist and one of the county’s first Republicans. He is a significant figure in Shenandoah County and the nation’s history, yet few people know he even existed. So when some new information emerged, and New Market Area Library’s program chair called asking me to do a program, I chose his life as my topic.
Yet, it appeared there was an obstacle that would have to be overcome. No one could talk about George Rye without talking about slavery in Shenandoah County. Many locals shy away from this topic. In this area, where the direct descendants of slaves and masters still live side by side and where the false image of a population historically adverse to slavery has been fashioned, mentioning how prevalent and powerful slavery was in this county is often considered taboo.
Runaway ad in the Shenandoah Herald, 12-5-1821
However, the possible issues many seem to fear never materialized. I pushed forward with the program, eventually using the time to talk as much about slavery and racism as I did about George Rye. And the great thing was that people relished the chance to learn about this forgotten history. People responded with inquisitive looks, thoughtful questions, and quite a few ah-ha moments instead of anger or irritation. Attendance was higher than most programs at the library, and the response on social media was outstanding. After the program many attendees remained to talk about the issues, to see what else they could discover, or to simply say how amazed they were that someone had actually discussed this topic.
So what does all of this mean for those of us interested in history? Perhaps it means the time has come for us to explore this forgotten history around us without any reservations. People are ready, now more than ever, to talk about the uncomfortable events they lived through and to hear the unconventional stories around us. Many of us can develop suspicions that limit our ability to do this, but the reality is that the negative reaction we fear is only all powerful in our minds. So go out and discover this hidden history; talk about it with a friend; and if you find yourself bored on the night of February 16th, visit the county library in Edinburg at 7:00PM, as I will be discussing the forgotten history of segregation and integration in Shenandoah County.
History in Action
History doesn’t always get the reputation as being an active part of our lives. Instead most people view it is a passive thing we study and try to learn from. At the archives, our staff sees that history is not something you simply file away and forget about. Instead it is an active thing that often reaches out and touches us in ways we would not suspect.
For the past several months we have worked to participate in #tbt (throwback Thursday) on Facebook and Twitter. Each we post a historic picture or document related to something going on in the present. Then we sit back and watch as people interact with it.
A "Historic" image showing Abraham Lincoln participating in #tbt
One of our more recent posts that attracted attention celebrated local veterans in honor of Veterans Day. Utilizing two posts we highlighted a series of documents from our Spiggle Family Collection related to Samuel L. Spiggle, a World War One veteran. They included an order to report for duty issued by Shenandoah County’s draft board and a postwar letter Spiggle received from an army buddy. Both also included background information that helped connect these documents with the broader story of Shenandoah County’s World War One veterans.
An order from the Shenandoah County Draft Boar for Samuel Spiggle to report for duty.
The reaction these items received on social media show just how active history can be. Within 24 hours the posts had been viewed over 3000 times, had received over 400 likes, 15 shares, and 17 comments. Many of those who interacted with the posts were family members who shared stories about their relatives, pictures, and historical insight that had escaped the official record. Others posted stories about veterans in their families and how they had similar experiences. Veterans also spoke up about how their efforts to connect with war buddies after they came home was just as important as Samuel’s efforts to stay in contact with his. One of these turned out to be Samuel L. Spiggle’s great-grandson who was currently serving in the US Army and had no idea his ancestor had left a record of his service almost a century before.
A post way letter sent to Samuel Spiggle from one of his war buddies.
All of this shows how active history making can be. Individuals are rarely interested in historic items unless it connects with something they can relate to. Items like the one from Samuel Spiggle do this. Veterans can see how soldiers from the past dealt with the horrors of war and the transaction from military to civilian life. Civilians can see how their relatives served, how it affected them, and how that shaped the way they developed their lives. Each one of us must be prepared to see how history can actively reach out and alter our perspective on the world.
Voice of the Archives November 2015
Archive "Heralds" Change
The past several months has brought a massive amount of change to the Truban Archives and Shenandoah Room. We have welcomed a new archivist, new volunteers, new programs, and new initiatives. More importantly, we have also been busy acquiring and developing new collections and tools designed to help us better understand this area’s past.
Collections are the lifeblood of the archives and we are always working to grow our holdings. One of our more notable recent acquisitions has been the Shenandoah Valley-Herald Collection. On the 23rd of September the newspaper agreed to place on permanent loan 149 bound volumes of the Shenandoah Herald, Shenandoah Valley, and Shenandoah Valley-Herald newspapers dating from 1923-2015. This means that every edition of those papers known to exist is now available at the library.
R.J. Lambert unloading the volumes of the Shenandoah Valley-Herald Collection in the archives
These newspapers are a treasure trove of information about local events, social life, businesses, government, organizations, and much more. Processing of this collection is ongoing, but interest has already been high. Within a day of their arrival researchers accessed them five times.
Picture of the oldest known newspaper printed in Shenandoah County,
the December 24th 1817 edition of the Woodstock Herald
Our physical collection is not the only thing that has expanded. The vast majority of individuals now access information online. To meet that need we have launched several new online tools and programs.
The first of these tools is our new digital collections. This project has been in the works for the last several months as our staff worked to select an online platform for our materials, to upload scanned items, and to enter necessary descriptive information. Ultimately these collections were launched using the Omeka platform which is a free program create by several universities that is fully searchable and easy to operate. So far both our newspaper clipping collection and a portion of our Herb Parker postcard collection is available and many more items are on their way.
A screen shot of our new digital collection’s page
To expand the amount of material that we can make available online we celebrated American Archives month with two digitization programs. The first was a public scanning day held on October 3rd. Despite a deluge of rain from Hurricane Joaquin that limited attendance, six volunteers were able to digitize items loaned to use by five individuals during that time period.
Volunteers at work during the digitization day (left) and a 1922 Mt. Jackson High School diploma scanned during the program (right
Our second event, a digitization marathon during the week of October 19-23rd produced more dramatic results. Volunteers staffed our scanning station between 10:00AM and 4:00PM the majority of those days and scanned ten of our county tax books, a total of over 4000 pages. All of these items are currently being processed and will be made available online within the next few months.
Volunteer Judy Reynolds recording information during our digitzation marathon (left) and completed tax books (right)
When access to the library website recently crashed, we took the opportunity to rework our entire site and create several new ways to help individuals discover the area’s history. The local history section received a complete makeover. This included the addition of two new blogs. The first of these, entitled Voice of the Archives, is published monthly and is an in depth review of an aspect of the Shenandoah Room and Truban Archives. The second, Lost in Collection, is updated more often and highlights unique items found in our collection.
A screen shot of the local history page of our new website.
We have also worked to open our collection to the millions of individuals utilizing social media. In addition to positing information about special programs, each week we post a “Throwback Thursday” (#tbt) post on the library’s Facebook page and Twitter feed. These highlight an item from our collection that is related to something a historic event or popular celebration that happened during that week. Each of these posts is connected with our account on the HistoryPin website. This tool allows us to create digital exhibits that include background information on the item, the community, and our history. Each item is also “pinned” to a location on an interactive Google Map that gives visitors the ability to visualize the historic site or document at its original location. So far our combined social media effort has attracted approximately 4000 views per month.
Links to our HistoryPin profile, Facebook page, and Twitter feed.