Who’s Your Daddy? Archaeology and Ancestry.com

Who Do You Think You Are?Americans are seemingly obsessed with their lineages.  The popularity of shows such as TLC’s Who Do You Think You Are? (TLC) and Genealogy Roadshow (PBS) indicate that we are interested in family histories and tracing our origins back to some lost, perhaps even famous, great-grandfather.

The increasing interest in genealogical research can best be seen in the growth and popularity of family tree software and websites.  With thousands of trees created and added to each day, millions of records, and apps for the iPhone, iPod, and iPad, Ancestry.com is unsurprisingly the most popular family tree researcher’s source available.  But what do family trees have to do with archaeology?  After all, genealogical research is about researching people you know, and it’s not often that archaeologists can recover a skeleton, nevermind a name to go with it.

Although archaeologists don’t often have detailed information on the individuals we uncover, we’re still interested in questions of where they came from? how they got there? and who they interacted with?  It’s not that archaeologists aren’t interested in personal roots, it’s just that they don’t have one particular person in mind most of the time.  Instead they often focus on the origins of people, and when we get far enough back, humanity.

div0065At GRA, our analysis of the Riverside location includes a comprehensive study of the surrounding area.  As part of our research,  we are attempting to reconstruct the surrounding neighborhood and its inhabitants.  Using census data, we’re creating a demographic profile of the neighborhood–Who lived there? How old were they?  How big were their families?  Were they German, Irish, Swedish, etc.?  Even though the nature of the Riverside site won’t allow us to link the material found there to a particular person, we can still get a better idea of the context in which the site changed through time.

The search hasn’t been particularly easy.  Anyone who has ever done research on family trees can appreciate the long hours spent sifting through records; sometimes boring, occasionally unpleasant, but when a new bit of information is found the pay-off feels worth it.  Our own research hit several stumbling blocks along the way.  Many hours sifting through material. Sometimes boring, sometimes unpleasant, but when that desired bit of information is found, the pay- off is worth it.

For Riverside, we were particularly interested in the census records from 1870, since we believed the major change in the site happened between 1870-1874.  As we began researching we found that the U.S. Census data was highly controversial.  Many believed that the records dramatically underrepresented the true population numbers.  New York and Philadelphia were especially vociferous in their complaints, leading the President to make an unprecedented order that the census be retaken in those areas.

When it came time for us to consult the records we were faced with a bigger problem.  Many of the New York records were missing!  Fortunately for us, we were able to turn to the online database of Ancestry.com.  Even though the hard copies no longer existed in New York, Ancestry.com’s database contained scans and transcriptions of the records we were looking for.  Once we checked their records against the hard copies we did have to determine that there were not major transcriptions errors, we were able to use the online database to fill in the gaps.  In fact, this turned out to be easier to transcribe in an excel format, rather than hand-typing everything!


Screen capture of Ancestry.com record for 22nd ward, 4th district of New York City.

Now that we are finished collecting the demographic data, we’re using it  to map out our occupants with GIS constructed maps. We’re planning on mapping the various businesses, possible ethnic communities (ie if there was/wasn’t any significant grouping via ethnicity), and trends/grouping of socioeconomic status. The overarching goal is to see how our finds in the field (and what demographics they imply) match up with what demographic data is attested in the written record.


Allen Street, between Chinatown and the Lower East Side. Named the Avenue of Immigrants in 2004.

One of the more interesting observations about the New York census data is the sheer variety of immigrant origins listed.  Although many of us are familiar with the Irish and German immigrants that inhabited 19th century New York, less well-known are the immigrants from Denmark, Portugal, Malta, and Asia.  Even within the U.S. residents from Louisiana, Kentucky, and Wisconsin were leaving their homes and arriving in New York City to try and take advantage of the opportunities the large city had to offer.

Interested in learning more?  Why not check out your own personal history on Ancestry.com?  Or, for a more epic account, check out our radio show on human origins!


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