By Mel Smith
(c) Connecticut Explored Inc. Fall 2010
If genealogy is all about “family business,” then the family business is booming in Connecticut! Genealogy, or the tracing of one’s ancestors, has always been a popular pastime. Several factors during the past few decades, however, have made genealogy a mainstream phenomenon that is sweeping the state and country.
The explosion of technology has allowed amateur historians and genealogists to more easily find more information about the old family tree. A whole new generation of armchair genealogical sleuths is using tools such as computers, genealogical software programs, the Internet, digitization of published and original manuscript materials, and yes, Facebook and Twitter. People no longer need to trek great distances to an archive or library to access basic genealogical research resources. For instance, federal census records, which were first collected in 1790 (and most recently this year), are a genealogical treasure trove to researchers when they are released for public use (the detailed records of the 2010 census won’t be available until 2082). The censuses from 1790 to 1930 have already been released, digitized, and made available to the general public, in whole or part, via the Internet on subscription genealogical services such as www.ancestry.com, or for free on HeritageQuest via Connecticut’s own www.iconn.org portal.
While it would seem that such technology would be the death knell for research facilities such as the Connecticut State Library, the Connecticut Historical Society, and the Connecticut Society of Genealogists’ library, nothing could be farther from the truth. Technology allows Connecticut libraries, archives, and historical institutions to openly display catalogues, archival finding aids, and resource guides on-line to better tell the public about their holdings and collections. These on-line resources help people prepare for and plan short-term or long-term visits to research institutions to access unique, rare, or specialized collections. (As a bonus, local hotels, area restaurants, along with many of the well-known Connecticut historic sites, reap the financial benefits of such visits.)
The national media has also boosted interest in genealogy. Thirty-three years ago, in 1977, Americans were riveted by the eight-part miniseries “Roots: The Saga of an American Family” based on the 1976 book by Alex Haley. The series compelled many Americans, particularly those of minority ethnic groups, to begin the search for their immigrant ancestors. African-Americans and people of Irish, Jewish, Russian, Polish, and Italian ancestry became interested in genealogical research. Institutions such as the Connecticut State Library suddenly found a whole new clientele that clamored to learn more about their ancestors and the faraway lands they came from.
This national-media-driven interest in history and genealogy continues. Recently PBS aired Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’ “Faces of America” series, which traces the ancestors of individuals such as actress Meryl Streep and cellist Yo-Yo Ma. And in NBC’s hit show “Who do you think you are?,” based on a popular British television show, celebrities visit various places across the world to “discover” materials that tell the story of their family. A recent episode, in which actor Mathew Broderick discovered he had Connecticut ancestors, showcased the Connecticut State Library building, staff, and archival records. The episode sparked a renewed interest in the Civil War records housed in the Connecticut State Archives.
The patriotic fervor sparked by the Bicentennial celebrations in 1976 spurred thousands of Americans to trace their families to the revolutionary time period to discover what role they may have played during the founding of our nation. Upcoming national celebrations such as the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War in 2011 and the 200thanniversary of the War of 1812 in 2012 might spark similar patriotic family pride.
Connecticut this year celebrates the 375th anniversary of its founding [See “Celebrating Connecticut’s Founding” on page 16]. That celebration may once again awaken in those that live in our state the desire to know more about their families’ past and to seek knowledge about the ordeals, triumphs, and tragedies that colonial Connecticut families endured.
Mel Smith is a reference librarian in the history genealogy unit of the Connecticut State Library, with 16 years of service helping individuals discover their family roots.
For more information on how to get started researching your family history, contact:
Connecticut State Library, History & Genealogy Unit, 231 Capitol Ave., Hartford Ct, 06106;
Connecticut Historical Society, 1 Elizabeth St., Hartford CT 06105; www.chs.org
Connecticut Society of Genealogists, Inc., 175 Maple St., East Hartford, CT 06118-2634; www.ctfamilyhistory.com
Godfrey Memorial Library, 134 Newfield Street, Middletown, CT; www.godfrey.org