It’s 2019 and the 200th anniversary of Arkansas Territory. Has your family’s story been fully appreciated and told as part of the reweaving of the American family history tapestry? If not, it’s time to tell it, and interesting new resources are available.
A wonderful development is that genealogy now embraces telling everyone’s family story, as opposed to other eras that focused on valorizing prominent ancestors. So while we still may look for the famous or wealthy in our trees as a side story, we are deeply involved in unearthing the character of a variety of ancestors. This helps us understand our own identity, especially when we explore all sides of the family.
Finding Your Family’s Story
In the Natural State, we might learn about the humble, hardworking farmer, tempest-tossed in bad crop years (sound familiar?) or flooding, or economic gyrations. We might discover a nurse from World War I in France whose story we didn’t know. We might see a 99-year-old World War II Tuskegee Airman and Korean War soldier from White Hall, Thomas Franklin Vaughns, an African American who finally received his medals in the summer of 2019. We might learn about connections to enslaved peoples and emancipation, whether our own families were directly involved or not. We might learn about indentured servants, who also bore heavy burdens.
The democratization of genealogy is under way, and at long last, the dispossessed and ignored are becoming the heroes and the stars. The documents are available, the DNA tests may be taken, and new human connections are developed that enhance our very quality of life. Make time to investigate, to travel to ancestors’ places in Arkansas and beyond, and to be amazed by the courage and adventures of long forgotten family members.
Arkansas’ Critical Current Connections
Of note right now: Japanese-American history from World War II, involving Arkansas, is being showcased in actor George Takei’s “They Called Us Enemy,” a new comic-book style presentation for young people. Takei is touring the country reminiscing about Japanese internment in Arkansas, connecting his family genealogy/history to current immigration issues.
It’s also the 100-year anniversary of the celebration of the 19th Amendment. That’s why Her Flag is traveling through Arkansas August 28 as part of a national project by founder Marilyn Artus. Were any women (or men) in your family involved in opposing or securing the right to vote for women?
Speaking of women, genealogist Angela Walton-Raji told family history enthusiasts at the annual CALS Butler Center genealogy workshop in Little Rock about a record group she discovered that documents females who served in the Civil War. Some of them eventually served in Little Rock hospitals. Record Group 94 at the National Archives (not digitized or online yet) in Washington, D.C. is where you can find pension applications for women who served as matrons, nurses, laundresses, and cooks. Walton-Raji, an author originally from Fort Smith, located the record group while researching African-American soldiers from Helena.
Though family researchers usually think of print resources and still photos to help explore their families, video is becoming very useful in the search, too. The David and Barbara Pryor Center at the University of Arkansas has made the first part of a collection of 50 years of digitized footage from KATV available online. In such news footage, ancestors and living relatives are discovered.
You may also find something about your extended family in updated resources as recent as the Clinton Presidential Librarycollections. Family written or video contact with a presidential administration (or prior governor’s administration, in the case of President Clinton) is common for officeholders, especially those from retail politics states like Arkansas. The Library says its Digital Libraryhas been revised to include more digitized collection. https://clinton.presidentiallibraries.us/collection-tree/
(Among the interesting items you may find in the digital collections, as an aside from your family: folders on President Donald Trump’s connections to the Clinton Administration.)
September 29 will see the dedication of the Elaine Massacre Memorial in downtown Helena-West Helena. The story of the massacre, 100 years ago, has been being retold all across Arkansas this year as new research has unearthed more about the 200-plus individuals slaughtered, and genealogy research is emerging.
Embracing Big Picture History and Genealogy
If you have African-American heritage, of great note are two series being offered by the New York Times and USA Todayabout enslaved peoples brought to America beginning in 1619. Some historians place the actual economic history of America, enhanced significantly because of the free work of the enslaved, at 1619 rather than at 1776. If you have ancestors who were enslaved or ancestors who enslaved them, this series is relevant. And it is also relevant for those whose families were not connected directly to slavery, but who benefited from it in unrecognized ways. A case in point is the slave work building of the Old State House in Little Rock constructed between 1833-1842.
To discover more about ancestors in Arkansas and beyond, a visit to the Arkansas State Archivesis in order. The Archives may be found in Little Rock, Powhatan, and Old Washington State Park. There is ongoing extensive digitization of newspapers for online use ($250,000 grant to digitize 100,000 pages of Arkansas newspapers from 1819-1922) that are critical to learning about your family and the history that surrounded it.
The Archives is also this fall developing a new web siteto showcase more than 21,000 digital imagesto help us investigate Arkansas history. There are new research collections, the valuable microfilm newspaper collection and microfilmed county records, and a collection acquired just this year that includes United States Western District of Arkansas Court Records associated with the storied Judge Isaac Parker.
Libraries, too, offer essential information in local history sections and rooms. Arkansas courthouse records are amazing. For historical society information, this link from the Arkansas Historical Association is worthy.
Reweaving the tapestry to find lost, colorful ancestor threads is a gift not only to ourselves and our own families, which is satisfying, but it also contributes new colors for the larger American Dream for those yet unborn. The revival and reweaving helps them understand their centuries-old family identity and become excited about their own future possibilities.
Jeanne Rollberg is a genealogist with American Dream Genealogy and Research who serves on the boards of the Friends of the Arkansas State Archives and the Arkansas Genealogical Society. She teaches genealogy classes at LifeQuest of Arkansas.