Discovering my family history: Genealogy at the National Archives

Today’s post comes from Garet Anderson-Lind, an intern in the National Archives History Office.

U.S. Immigrant Building at Ellis Island, 1900. (National Archives Identifier: 597954)

As an aspiring historian, genealogy has always been an aspect of history that I have found interesting. Growing up I heard stories of older relatives and our strong German heritage, which inspired me to look deeper into our history and what it meant to be a part of our family.

Until I got involved with the National Archives as a history office intern, it always felt like the tools to explore my family’s history were out of reach. Not only did pay walls on websites stop me, I lacked the know-how to explore my ancestors and their stories.

Through the National Archives, several avenues of research and discovery have opened up to me.

Today I am sharing a few highlights of my family’s history and talking about the tools I used to help research my ancestors. I hope to inspire others to pursue their own genealogy research, and to help potential researchers avoid some of the pitfalls I encountered when I attempted to do my genealogy research.

Hailing from Wisconsin, it will surprise no one with a knowledge of the area that my family going back many generations is sehr Deutsch—very German. Through my research, I was able to pinpoint where many of my ancestors came from, thanks in part to immigration and census records available online.

1940 Census Enumeration District Descriptions – Wisconsin – Winnebago County – ED 70-7, ED 70-8, ED 70-9, ED 70-10, 1940. (National Archives Identifier 5888050)

The first ancestor I want to highlight is Albert Edward Domke. Born in Pomerania, which was then a part of Prussia, Albert came to the United States on the passenger ship America in 1869, around the age of 20. Married to Anne Nessbauer (Nesbower), Albert was a nailer who lived until the ripe age of 43 and had two children, both sons.

One of the more interesting facts about Albert is that he possibly changed his last name when he arrived in the United States. As far as my research can tell, the name he and his family used on the immigration forms when arriving here was Damkse, slightly different than the last name Domke that he and three more generations of my family used before the name ended with my father’s mother.

Highlighting both the desire to “Americanize” last names and the continued fight for good documentation, my grandfather Albert shows the many of the difficulties that can arise when trying to pin down older ancestors.

Not all my family members were born more than 150 years ago. Another family member whose story now inspires me is my great grandmother, Nina Meyer, from my mother’s side.

Born in 1914 to Christ Meyer and Wilhelmina Nehring, Nina went on to survive the Great Depression and go to college as well. Although neither of her parents got past eighth grade, Grandma Nina was able to not only graduate high school, but had at least a year of college when the 1940 census rolled around. And she was also married to my great-grandfather at the time.

Throughout my research, I used resources from the National Archives, many of which you can find online.

The first place to start is the general National Archives genealogy page. The website provides a great starting point for genealogy research.

Furthermore, through the NARA website, the site was a huge boon to my efforts. With access to census records and immigration papers, Ancestry helps connect all the dots. The site also provides help through the creation of user-generated family trees. Visitors to National Archives facilities nationwide may access for free.

In addition to Ancestry, the site also provides helpful tips to getting your genealogy research started.

Finally, to help keep in the spirit of history and research, don’t forget that 2017 is the anniversary of America’s entry in World War I. If you know of a family member who served or you want to find out, the National Archives has many resources for these types of inquiries as well.

Over 4.7 million American men and woman served during World War I. Did someone in your family serve? Photo: American Red Cross canteen at the station of Bordeaux, France, where soldiers of the Allied armies get lunches, tobacco, etc. 1918. (National Archives Identifier: 20803816)

Hopefully, my family’s story has provided some insight into the interesting things you can learn about your own family history.

In addition, not only is family history research important for personal reasons, through continued efforts by everyone, more and more family connections can be made. Perhaps your own investigation can provide a family member’s maiden name to another researcher, or perhaps an old photo album contains a picture of someone else’s great-great-grandfather that they have never seen.

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