Celebrating Ancestor Romance Can Heighten Family History Discovery

Senior adult woman looking at an old photo of her husband.
 

Alas, in the month of Valentine’s Day, a longtime candy tradition – the New England Confectionary Company’s conversation heart candies (“Be Mine”) – are no longer available to help us express amorous feelings or earn their legendary $1.8 billion (!) in sales.

Luckily, family love is still in the air if we can not only imagine, but also actually discover, our ancestors’ own love stories via family artifacts and newspapers, and also look to Presidents’ Day and presidential libraries to unearth treasured and illuminating connections that are part of our heritage.

The Love Stories We Cherish

Do you know how your grandparents or great-grandparents met, or about their wedding stories? Items about family romances and nuptials are often found in newspapers such as the statewide Arkansas Democrat-Gazette today and are sometimes even featured on the “100 Years Ago” columns that many local newspapers around the country feature. How we appreciate the historic articles that provide family history leads!

The Montgomery Advertiser, in July 1924, wrote “The otherwise placid and peaceful little city of Clayton was thrown into a state of excitement Monday morning when its citizens awoke from their slumber and found that two of their most popular young people…..W.E. Norton and Miss Alice Jean Woolverton, had been quietly married in the Baptist pastorium…excitement gave place to speculation and smiles of approval.”  The story also described the couple’s honeymoon route, saying “they purchased tickets for Birmingham, Lansing, Mich.; Niagara Falls, N.Y., Toronto, Canada and other points.”

The heartwarming romance and wedding stories often contain details about locations, family members, military status and other atmosphere and context that we may not find anywhere else about ancestors we didn’t know. We may also discover that for “average Americans” of middle class status outside of big cities, weddings were much simpler, less expensive and showy events than they are today. That reflects America’s growing affluence over time.  Most marriages, except those of the wealthy, took place at home, in justices’ offices, or in small churches.

Serendipitously, you’ll sometimes find that grandparents’ wedding dates or honeymoon plans mirrored your own or relatives’ in other parts of the family, and no one even knew! Did you get married on a holiday, such as Valentine’s Day, the Fourth of July, St. Patrick’s Day, etc. It may well astound you that your ancestors did, too. Check to see.

Presidents’ Day Leads Us to Love Presidential Libraries

Presidents’ Day, designed to honor the nation’s leaders, may also have special meaning for

family history buffs because – O happy day! –  presidential libraries contain more genealogical information about the presidents’ connections to the public – such as an ancestor – than we might imagine.

This is especially true of smaller, more intimate states like Kansas and Arkansas, both of

which feature presidential libraries. The Eisenhower Library and Museum in Abilene contains yearbooks, school photos, letters to “Mamie and Ike” from the public, as well as their responses. It also features a very extensive Eisenhower lineage book that includes many families created by an Eisenhower cousin.

READ MORE: The Priceless Gift of Family History

The libraries are fascinating repositories to explore if a family is connected either by blood or by association with a former president. Former presidents were often officeholders in states and cities or military leaders before becoming president, so the connections may be from a family member’s youth.

If related to a president, you’ll want to explore the genealogical resources (mostly books, documents, and photos) about the president or first lady at a presidential library. Each library has its own set of “finding aids,” many now online, that guide researchers looking for information.

You may e-mail, write, or call the library for further guidance. Since most of us are not directly related, we’ll likely be more interested in seeking information about associations – personal, military, business, or governmental – with a president’s family. This may lead us to other collections about the presidents before they were president that are held in offsite repositories (such as the Butler Center in Little Rock which is home to Clinton gubernatorial papers.)

The William J. Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock is connected to a museum that features genealogical pictures, elementary, high school and college information, and other memorabilia about both former President Bill Clinton and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. Is there also anything for us there?

Supervisory archivist Dana Simmons says, “We do have correspondence from ‘ordinary people.’  We find them all over the Staff and Office files.  In addition, the White House Office of Records Management (WHORM) contains a variety of series created to organize and track documents and correspondence. The WHORM Subject File was compiled by the White House Office of Records Management and is a series of categories designated by a letter/number combination.”

For presidential libraries of two-term and more recent presidents like Bill Clinton, the processing of voluminous information for public use is intense and lengthy. “Unfortunately, we don’t have large collections of correspondence processed unless it was processed as part of a FOIA [open records] request or is contained in a Staff Member’s office files that have been systematically processed,” Simmons said.

If your ancestors didn’t write to presidents, first ladies or their children, might they be seen in older films or newer videos held by the libraries? It’s worth exploring.

If you’ve never been to the locations where your ancestors fell in love or to a presidential library, your research may inspire you to plan that worthy customized genealogy travel to experience more intensely your family history. Though we can learn a lot through family artifacts and online research, standing in the church where our ancestors married provides a heartwarming and historic context.  It’s sort of a Valentine’s present to yourself, whenever it happens.

Likewise, presidential libraries are few and are historic in themselves. Learning about a president that you are connected to may provide historic context for more of your genealogy research and your family’s American Dream. There are currently 14 with online resources. The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration oversees the libraries. Information about the presidential libraries whose family resources we love to love and links to them may be found here. Most feature free admission on Presidents’ Day.

Jeanne Rollberg is a genealogist with American Dream Genealogy and Research who also serves on the boards of the Friends of the Arkansas State Archives and the Arkansas Genealogical Society. She teaches genealogy classes at LifeQuest of Arkansas.

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