I have been doing work on Ancestry.com. I have never known much about my mother’s side of the family and that is mostly what got me started on it – that curiosity. But as you go along and find out little stories, family histories, see pictures even – it becomes more than a curiosity. You kind of feel like a detective, looking at census rolls and trying to see if that family matches up to the information you already have on a member of your family. Seeing that my great, great, great grandpa was a farmer who never learned to read and write… It really kind of becomes a way to see into the past a little.
There also comes a point in the research that makes you much more thankful that you are a woman NOW instead of back then. And, I would suppose, this must happen for people of color too.
One example: My great great grandma had 13 kids. That’s a whole lot of kids. She must have been much stronger than me. Her grandma had 10, but several died in childhood. That thought makes me sad, though I know it was part of life back then.
Another example: in the 1840’s US Federal Census (and before), there is little information to give us details now. There is a column in which the head of the household’s name is listed. All men on my great great great great grandfather’s page. I assume from books I have read that if your husband died you would return to your brother’s house or your father’s. Or possibly become employed under another man’s roof. Then there are two larger columns, split into many smaller columns. There are numbers in those columns. The two main columns are “Free White Persons” and “Free Colored Persons”. (If you go back just one more census there are columns for slaves and servants too) Then those two columns are both split into two columns – “male” and “female” and then those four columns are split into several column with ages – under 5, 5-10, 10-15, etc for the “white persons”, under 10, 10-20, etc for the “colored persons”.
This really hit me today. I mean, back then a wife or child or mother or sister or mother in law was reduced to a 1 in a column. And at least here, they might not have names, but they do have ages. Go back and look 2 more censuses back and they are just a tick in a line of tally marks. No names, no ages, just “free white female” or “colored slave” or “free white male” for a male child.
I can’t imagine living in a time when everyone – women, children, men of color, were property of the head of their household. I can’t imagine living in a time when having more children was better because you needed them to help work and support the family. I can’t imagine living in a time when my 6 year old son would be helping in the fields during the harvest and planting season instead of going to school.
It sure gives me an amazing perspective on how far we have come.