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HISTORIANS Seeing into the family tree

Two genealogists, Jed and Andrea, had been across the nation following the footsteps of the ancestors. The more they found out, the more these people felt real and familiar. Jed and Andrea began joking about being “time detectives.”

In the historical records they found snippets about their relatives. From looking at descriptions of property and possessions, Jed and Andrea could imagine the homesteads where their ancestors lived. To these descriptions in probate records and newspaper advertisements for property sales they added the recollections from living elderly family. Yet Jed and Andrea felt as if they were just glimpsing the past, not quite grasping ahold of it.

Jed and Andrea knew little about archeology, and supposed that archeologists were most interested in kings and queens, or the origins of humankind, or in finding gold and tombs and other amazing things.

What they didn’t realize was that many archeologists think people in general are pretty amazing. After a historical society employee suggested they look at archeological records to add texture to their historical understanding, Jed and Andrea started asking about it wherever they did research. They learned historical context for their families’ lives, about cultural changes that influenced them to move, their traditions, and the kinds of things they owned. The photographs of artifacts and maps of excavations helped Jed and Andrea to see what their ancestors might have seen.

No archeological investigations taken place on Jed’s and Andrea’s ancestors’ lands, yet they still gained tantalizing glimpses of what might have been. Looking at archeological results from the properties of similar families seemed to breathe life into their family tree.

Case Studies

(photo) Archeology students consult at the New Philadelphia site. (Shannon Guthrie)
Frank McWorter must have been a busy, determined man. He was an African American who hired out his own time and established saltpeter mining operations while enslaved in Kentucky. He wanted to succeed and to be free, but much of early 19th-century society was against him.  more +

In 1817 Frank succeeded in purchasing the freedom of his pregnant wife Lucy. It must have been quite a relief for both of them when he bought his own freedom in 1819. Over time, he successfully purchased the freedom of other family members. In 1836 McWorter acquired land in Pike County, Illinois and established New Philadelphia, a town for people moving to the frontier.

Society changed, as did the fortunes of New Philadelphia, and by the 1880s the town was unincorporated. By the early 20th century only a few houses survived. Today, the site looks like little more than planted fields in prairie grass and wheat. Archeology helps historians to bring the story of McWorter’s town to the surface.

A local group is revitalizing the history of New Philadelphia. Historians found out quite a lot from maps, photographs, deeds, and census data. But more was to be found. The community asked a group of archeologists from the University of Maryland and the Illinois State Museum for help.

The archeological findings – such as window glass, nails, ceramic pieces, and toys – trace the location of houses and businesses. They point to where the people of New Philadelphia established their commercial district. The artifacts rebuild a sense of the place, bringing resonance between the past and present and room for realizing the unique circumstances the town represents and the power of individuals to shape history.

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