Finding Hidden Families – A Personal View by Gene O’Lowgee

Genealogy is tough stuff. ads betray the craft and creativity involved in doing what, at the end of the day, is no less than reconstructing past lives and families.

What is more intangible, after all, than a previous day? Let alone the folks who lived through them?

(I’m sure any physicist readers will likely have a rejoinder, but hey – I went to library school. Cut me some slack.)

That the practice – now a $1 billion+ industry – has taken off is a bit surprising when one considers the public consensus regarding history in particular and the humanities in general.


Co-Host Kenyatta D. Berry interviews a guest in HSP’s Reading Room during Genealogy Roadshow’s visit to Philadelphia in 2015. 

While students’ eyes are glazed over by cold recitations of dates in many history classrooms (don’t let yours be one!), their parents are meanwhile spending their dollars and hours decoding their DNA to track down their ancestors.

The interest in researching one’s ancestors has waxed and waned from well before the country’s founding. These vacillations can be couched in historical, social, and political circumstances. In each phase, the methodology and ostensible aims differed.

But similarities exist, especially in terms of the challenges facing intrepid genealogists.


Detail from the DeBelen hand-painted family chart ca. 1771. From the Genealogy Chart Collection

Commiserate with your 18th century counterparts: Henry Laurens, a president of the Continental Congress, lamented that his father “had been very Careless concerning his Ancestry,” saving few family records, which “account[s] for the deficiency of my knowledge in the history of our past Generations.”

For those of us in this century, many of the most time-consuming challenges have been mercifully eased by machine-readable records and the remote access to databases afforded by the Internet.

I’m reminded of a presentation delivered during last year’s Family History Days.

The speaker typed his surname in a FamilySearch database of a particular record source and, less than a second later, discovered that the query turned up zero results.

He remarked that – prior to the Internet and electronic databases – simply confirming that the same record source contained nothing relating to his family would have involved weeks, if not months, of sifting through microfilm.

Intriguing Sources 3

A shelfie in HSP’s Closed Stacks.

Owing to the availability of these databases – many of which are free and require little more than the ability to operate a keyboard – the search for one’s family has certainly become “easier” for many aspiring genealogists.

Or so it would seem.

For many, finding “the ancestor of your ancestor” is difficult if not – on first flush – seemingly impossible.

Let’s cross both the Atlantic and Pacific to consider a few examples.

The family tree of Chinese philosopher Confucius is generally considered to be the largest in the world, with the original paper collection numbering more than 43,000 pages, including 83 generations of his descendants.

China 2

Henry Jung in his Chinatown shop ca. 1940. From the Holy Redeemer Chinese Catholic Church photograph collection [PG120]

That’s well over two million individuals.

Yet Chinese and Chinese Americans hoping to reconstruct their families’ lives in China are often stymied by Mao Zedong’s penchant for purging records.

Perhaps ironically, Confucius is one of the few individuals from China’s pre-revolutionary past that the Chinese Communist Party actively promotes.

German Americans trying to trace their mid-20th century ancestors in Germany are sometimes hindered by genealogy’s association with the Ahnenpass, literally “ancestor passport’, and the Third Reich’s racially based social policies.

Stateside, these brick walls brought about by political and social circumstances can be found in the struggles facing many African-American genealogists.

Thrash 2

Dox Thrash’s Manda WPA art print ca. 1933-1941. From the Works Projects Administration posters collection [V99]

Traditional sources are of little use for obvious reasons. Records exist, but they are often sparse and scattered.

But they are not impossible to find. What’s required is creativity in genealogists’ research strategies.

These skills of exploring nontraditional sources – and looking at traditional sources in new ways – would benefit all those seeking their ancestors’ stories, regardless of race and ethnicity.

I’m proud to work at an archive that has made aiding ALL researchers a priority.

In March, HSP hosted “Last Seen”: Finding Family After Slavery, a workshop offering researchers a new digital tool for telling family stories of separation and survival during slavery, emancipation, and the Civil War.

It utilizes digitized “Information Wanted” advertisements placed in newspapers by former slaves and United States Colored Troops searching for family members lost by sale, flight, or enlistment.

Look back

Come and Join Us Brothers Camp William Penn illustration ca. 1864.  From the Historical Society of Pennsylvania medium graphics collection [V64]

The ads mention family members, often by name, but also by physical description, circumstances of separation, last seen locations, and at times by the name of a former slave master. The earliest ads appeared in papers in 1863, and continued for more than three decades.

These workshops and digital tools for reconstructing African-American genealogy are a boon to all those seeking their families in historical records – not only African-American genealogists or those hailing from marginalized or underrepresented communities. That’s because the research strategies and techniques underpinning them can be repurposed by any genealogist.

Case in point: Beginning on July 31, HSP is hosting Researching Family in Pennsylvania, a week-long course designed around the records and repositories available to family historians seeking their Pennsylvania ancestors, regardless of their families’ background.

Fluency in exploring libraries, repositories, and archives – and their court records, deeds, tax lists, and online databases – benefits all genealogists. These are the “tricks of the trade,” of use to all.

The course’s curriculum is guided by three primary questions:

  • What records are available?
  • Where are the records located?
  • What information can be gleaned from the records?

Graduates will be able to answer all three with confidence.

Researching Family in Pennsylvania is designed for all levels of genealogical exploration, from those beginning their family history to the advanced researcher.

Presenters include Judy Russell, CGSM, CGLSM , Amy Arner, Aaron McWillliams, Lee Arnold, DLitt et Phil, Sue Long, Ph.D., and more.

Sign up today, only three spots remain!

This post was written by guest contributor Gene O’Lowgee. He will be exploring these topics and more in this one-in-an-occasional series.

Researching Family in Pennsylvania is made possible as part of HSP’s ongoing genealogy education made possible through its partnership with the Greater Philadelphia Area Chapter of the Association of Professional Genealogists.


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