Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Digging up archaeologists & other family stories

Today marks the anniversary of the famous discovery of the burial chamber of Pharaoh Tutankhamun by Howard Carter in 1923. In celebration, we took a peek into his family history. Howard's Wikipedia page tell us he was born in London 9 May 1874. The 1881 and 1891 census of England show Howard living in London with his parents Samuel and Martha. Samuel was an artist, and the 1891 census shows Howard's occupation as an art student. Not long after the 1891 census was taken, Howard left for Egypt and began the adventure of a lifetime.

Samuel Carter family, 1891 census of England
1891 Census of England, Brompton, Kensington, London, population schedule. District 21, Piece 33, Folio 104, Page 82, #10 Rich Terrace, Samuel J. Carter; digital image ( accessed 16 Feb 2011); citing The National Archives, London, England, Census Returns of England and Wales, 1891; 2,131 rolls.

However, if we did not happen to know that Howard Carter was *the* Howard Carter of Egyptian fame, or if we didn't know he had a Wikipedia page, how would we have found him? He was not listed in the 1901 census. We could check all the usual places, including civil registration, military records, passenger lists, etc., but Carter is a common last name and London is a big city. We know now that he did not marry and had no children, but if we had no accounts of his life, we could have wasted hours upon hours searching for this mysterious uncle.

Although nothing can replace family letters, photos, and postcards, we have found that one of the best sources for "inside information" when looking for 19th and 20th century ancestors, and sometimes earlier ancestors as well, is FindAGrave. FindAGrave members who care about virtual cemetery maintenance often upload photos and stories and provide hyperlinks to information about other family members.

Newspaper articles, although frequently much more time intensive to search, are another rich source of biographical information. Sites such as GenealogyBank, Newspaper Archive, Proquest Historical Newspapers Collection, and other subscription websites are frequently available through your local library for free. In addition, many other sources are free such as Google News Archive. For United States research, we recommend consulting a list of historical newspapers online hosted by University of Pennsylvania Libraries. also has memorial pages which integrate with Facebook to celebrate the lives of our family and ancestors.

Howard Carter's example underscores the importance of looking not just for dates, places, and names, but for stories. It also illustrates the importance of working from modern events backwards in time rather than latching onto a historical event and working forwards. Working backwards in time, Howard's extended family and their descendants know a bit about his accomplishments, so we have additional clues which help guide the investigation. Without such clues, we would be left wondering what ever happened to Uncle Howard after the 1891 census. We'd probably waste tons of time and money ordering death records to see if he died, when all along he was just living in Egypt, off making breathtaking discoveries which were not recorded in the usual genealogical records.

So, please, take a moment to write down your family stories, not just the names and dates and places. Include the whole family, even the weird ones. Share them at FindAGrave or Footnote. Your great-great grand nieces and nephews will thank you.

To read more about Howard Carter:

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