Thursday, July 19, 2012

This Is the Archive of Stories That Never End...

The National Archives at Chicago is a very serious repository -- no bags, no binders, no pencils, and for my money the toughest citations. It's easy to forget that it also contains enough raw story material to get a continent full of blocked novelists writing again.

Of course, that's not usually the reason we genealogists visit there. We've got specific dead people to find, not stories, but the stories often weasel their way into our negative findings. In Record Group 110, "Records of the Provost Marshal General's Bureau (Civil War)" for Indiana, I briefly encountered a good Civil War soldier who went to town with his buddies, got drunk, and was placed on a train to somewhere other than where his unit was. Having laboriously managed to get back home, get some money, and return to camp, he learned that the unit had been mustered out and he was listed as a deserter. (No, I don't know how it came out!) Check out this list of their record groups.

At my first national conference in 2008, I recall some archivists brought in a dried mole skin from the main office, but they could have brought almost any piece of paper, really. Another wonderful setting for a story emerged from the pension file of a thrice-married Michigan woman (obtained from the national, not a branch). She was the widow of a bona fide Civil War soldier, and married second a man who worked on sailing ships in the summers and in the woods in the winters. He died under obscure circumstances on the lake in the late 1860s -- no records. Decades later when she sought a pension, the question arose whether he was really dead. In their fruitless investigation, pension bureau employees beat the bushes up and down the western shore of Lake Michigan, looking for a handful of footloose aging men who had once worked the lakes when you could just go down to the dock and sign on to work a voyage. This was a world that had already vanished irretrievably by 1900.

Most of us live within reasonable driving distance of a regional archive, if not the big one in DC. Don't cheat yourself. Spend some time there getting acquainted with the people and the records (and the citations!). Chances are you'll find both stories and resources you never dreamed of. Check the out on line first, have a specific quest in mind, and call first.

Harold Henderson, "This Is the Archive of Stories That Never End...," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 19 July 2012 ( : accessed [access date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]

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