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From the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill -- 2/8/2006

The American Memory Collection at the Library of Congress

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Imagine reading a Sunday school book from 1845 or an immigrants' travel guide published in the 1820s. It can be done from the comfort of your own home using the American Memory Collection at the Library of Congress. This week we take a brief look at some of the wonderful historical material hosted on this site.

Sometimes when we read history, it seems like the comments are being made about the present time instead of an era long since past. It is sometimes true that the more things change, the more they stay the same. In 1867 James Shaw wrote: "Too many have been the petitions for divorce during the last few years; too trivial have been the reasons given, and too frequent have the requests been granted."

It sounds like a comment from 1967 instead of 1867. It is important to remember that in some camps, the world has always been ending, morals are always decaying, and things were always better in the "old days." Still, reading materials from one hundred years ago can provide us with a new perspective on our ancestors.

Shaw's comment appears in his Twelve years in America: being observations on the country, the people, institutions and religion; with notices of slavery and the late war; and facts and incidents illustrative of ministerial life and labor in Illinois, with notes of travel through the United States and Canada. Whoa, that is a title. This book and hundreds of others are available to the public at no charge through the Library of Congress' American Memory Collection. One can spend hours if not days browsing the material on this site.

The Library of Congress American Memory Collection contains digital reproductions of a wide variety of print and audio media, ranging from pre-American Revolutionary works to reactions to the 9-11 attacks. Lessons on etiquette and farming can be found in addition to suggestions for the potential immigrant. This week we take a brief look at just a sampling of what is available on this site--you might not find your ancestors, but you are certain to find something to broaden your understanding of their life.

African-American History:

  • Slave Narratives from the Federal Writer's Project, 1936-1938
    "Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938" contains more than 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery and 500 black-and-white photographs of former slaves. Collected in the 1930s as part of the Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), these materials were compiled and microfilmed in 1941 as the seventeen-volume "Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves."
  • Sam Kilgore was born in 1845 in Williams County, Tennessee, on one of the largest plantations in the South. He was in the Confederate Army and served in the Spanish-American War. His narrative indicates he was 92 at the time of the interview and living in Ft. Worth where he had owned a cement contracting business. The narrative discusses his life on the plantation and his experiences after the war. His narrative also includes two photographs and can be viewed here.
  • First Person Narratives of the American South, 1860-1920
    Including diaries, autobiographies, travel accounts, and narratives, this collection documents the culture of the nineteenth-century American South from the vantage point of its residents. These materials were collected from printed texts in the libraries of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and include prominent and not-so-prominent individuals.
  • The Church in the Southern Black Community
    An additional collection of printed texts from the libraries of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill documents how African-Americans impacted and experienced Christianity in the American South. This collection is comprised of one hundred titles.


  • Civil War Maps, 1861-1865
    Civil War Maps collection brings together materials from three wonderful sources: the Library of Congress Geography and Map Division, the Virginia Historical Society, and the Library of Virginia. There are hundreds of maps to choose from, including numerous maps of battlefields.
  • Railroad Maps, 1828-1900
    This wonderful collection of digital scans includes maps from all fifty states and the District of Columbia. The high-quality scans allow users to print out nice copies of applicable maps or to copy them for their own personal use. While these maps are not searchable by location name, they are browsable by state. These maps will tell you what railroad might have run near your ancestor's town and also provide names of locations not listed on modern maps. I spent hours just on this collection alone.
  • American Revolutionary-Era Maps
    The American Revolution and Its Era: Maps and Charts of North America and the West Indies, 1750-1789 represents an important historical record of the mapping of North America and the Caribbean.


  • Early Virginia Religious Petitions
    Early Virginia Religious Petitions includes images of 423 petitions submitted to the Virginia legislature between 1774 and 1802. Taken from the Library of Virginia's Legislative Petitions collection, over eighty counties and cities are represented. The petitions include such topics as the historic debate over the separation of church and state, the rights of dissenters such as Quakers and Baptists, the sale and division of property in the established church, and a variety of other disagreements and concerns. The collection provides searchable access to the petitions' places of origin and a brief summary of each petition's contents. Searches for a specific name on a specific petition must be done manually by the user (and some are difficult to read). A quick scan of the petitions for Amherst County, Virginia, indicated that most of them centered on assessment or the division of the parish. Fortunately I located the signatures of several ancestors on these documents, which are available here.
  • Sunday School Books: Shaping the Values of Youth in Nineteenth-Century America
    Drawn from collections of Michigan State University Libraries and the Clarke Historical Library at Central Michigan University, this collection includes 163 Sunday school books published in the United States between 1815 and 1865. A read of some of these books provides for an interesting perspective on our ancestor's religious experience.

Immigration and American Expansion:

There are eleven collections that contain materials on the immigrant experience and decades of migration that took place in the United States. Included in this section are "The First American West: The Ohio River Valley, 1750-1820," "American Notes: Travels in America, 1750-1920," "Pioneering the Upper Midwest: Books from Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, ca. 1820-1910," and "Westward by the Sea: A Maritime Perspective on American Expansion 1820-1890." The materials contained here provide excellent first-hand information on many aspects of travel in the United States. Particularly interesting are the suggestions to immigrants and migrants.

In answering a potential migrant from Pennsylvania to Illinois, Morris Birbeck writes:

"You might make your way from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh in a light wagon; but from thence to the neighbourhood of our settlement, by far the cheapest and most easy mode of traveling is down the Ohio to Shawnee-town." At that place"¦you would either take some land conveyance, or possibly might proceed up the Wabash"¦ You would however, obtain at Shawnee-town information and advice as to your proceeding."

Taken from Letters from Illinois, written by Morris Birkbeck and published 1818.

The American Memory collection can be browsed by topic here.

The Collection can be searched here by using the box in the upper right hand corner.

When you read a little history, you may be pleasantly surprised at what you learn.

Michael John Neill is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is currently a member of the board of the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS). He conducts seminars and lectures nationally on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry Magazine and Genealogical Computing. You can e-mail him at or visit his website at, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

Copyright 2006,

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