Google your Ancestors

Believe it or not, if you google your ancestors, you may be able to find something about them and their doings. Googling your ancestors is hit and miss, of course, but can be a surprisingly easy way to track down information. Increasing volumes of records are digitized, some available to you at no charge. Academic researchers may have published something based on an analysis of historic documents in which your ancestor happened to to be named. Counties used to publish biographies of people living there (publishing companies such as Acme made quite a business of these biographies); people could submit their own biographies, leading to write-ups about the lives of otherwise obscure individuals.

Let me give you an example of what I found by Googling a great-great grandparent. The first thing I needed to figure out was the correct spelling of the family’s surname. As a child, I had learned the maiden name of this particular great-great grandmother, but not her husband’s name — her married name. (I have no idea why her maiden name survived in our family memory.) I asked a cousin, who guessed at the family’s surname, and was quite unsure how it might be spelled.

So how do you track down someone of whose surname you have only a vague idea? My cousin knew it was probably French. Reasoning that there must be people living in France today with the same surname, I went to the French Google website and began searching various spellings. When I came up with a spelling that yielded lots of hits, I knew I had at least the correct spelling of a surname that was pronounced like the one my cousin verbalized. On other occasions, by the way, I’ve found this a useful strategy to find the correct spelling of an ancestor’s surname.

I then used that spelling to locate the family in the U.S. Census, successfully, although I also discovered later that the spelling of the surname was butchered during a couple of census takings, but that’s another story.

Then I tried entering the married name of my great-great-grandmother in Google (if a surname is common, like Harris or Ross are in my family, put quotation marks around the full name of the person, and if you need to narrow further, use the town or county where the person lived.) Lo and behold I found two quite interesting documents.

One was reference to my great-great grandmother in a book a researcher had written (that had been digitized) about bankruptcy laws after the Civil War. My great-great-grandmother was one of the few women to make use of bankruptcy law, due to clients of her dressmaking business being unable to pay her. From this short article, I learned that she had a bono fide business, and I also learned something of its scale.

The other document was from a California newspaper, reporting the founding of an organization called the Women’s Protective League of California; my great-great grandmother was a founding member. Among other things, the stated purpose of this organization was “to discourage the employment of Chinese in any capacity whatever by the people of this State,” and “to provide employment in various branches of industry for women and girls throughout the State.” Yikes, my great-great grandmother was an anti-Chinese activist in California at the time the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed!

Google was very useful to me in finding out more about the context. I looked into the mission of Women’s Protective Leagues elsewhere (they were not necessarily anti-Chinese organizations). I investigated more about the history and status of Chinese Americans in San Francisco specifically and California more generally, including how completion of the railroads had led many newly unemployed Chinese workers to come to San Francisco looking for work at the same time Southerners (like this set of ancestors) were flooding into California to escape economic ravages of the Civil War. I also Googled the names of her co-founders, discovering one of them to be a feminist attorney who fought for women’s rights and generally for the rights of other oppressed groups but stood firm against the Chinese. This research led me to consider interactions between immigration, patriarchy, and white privilege, in contexts in which there is not enough work to go around.

Chances are, you will Google ancestors and not find anything. But you might. It’s free, and it only takes a few minutes of your time to find out.

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