Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Remember the Maine (and its impact on genealogy)

On the evening of 15 February 1898, 266 American sailors met their deaths after the USS Maine exploded and sank in the Havana, Cuba harbor. Only 89 members of the crew survived. Although we believe now that the loss was an accident, a the time it was perceived as an act of war, and sparks flew between the United States and Spain. Cries of "Remember the Maine, to hell with Spain!" echoed through America and the Spanish–American War began.

Ostensibly, the war was about Cuban independence. In reality, Spain and America bloodied each other's noses from Havana to Manila and back again that year. What was really at stake were lucrative trade routes. Spain was fighting to keep some vestige of her former domination of the New World after her child colonies all grew up and declared independence. The United States was fighting...well, because of the Maine. And because we wanted to help Cuba. And we were also beginning to feel like a real world player.

So, our ancestors went to war again. Many of the cultural ties genealogists see today are a result at least in some part of the Spanish-American War, especially Hispanic researchers with family in Cuba and Florida, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. Following the war, the United States ended up with Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. Cuba gained independence. Those still loyal to Spain retreated to the continent, sometimes leaving family behind in Cuba, Florida, Puerto Rico and Guam.

The Spanish-American War left a distinct paper trail and impact on research in six countries. In the United States, we have service records for those who fought in the Spanish-American war. In Cuba, it's considered the War of Independence, and records are cataloged as such. In Puerto Rico, the change in government from Spanish to United States colony resulted in a change in record keeping and the first census taken the year following the war, before the colony was included in the regular decennial United State census starting in 1910. Similar considerations extend to Guam, although it was not included in the decennial census until 1920. Research in the Philippines also changes substantially following the Spanish-American war, with records previously kept in Spanish now kept in English. Residents of the Philippines were enumerated in 1900, 1910, and 1920 United States censuses. Spain also holds records pertinent to the era in her archives, including military records and of course records about her former colonies.

For genealogists, therefore we echo the cry "Remember the Maine," not as a call to war, but to consider the cultural impacts on families today. The following silent movie was filmed by the Thomas Edison company in 1898 and shows in three minutes what the year was like for our ancestors.

For additional resources pertaining to the Spanish-American War and resulting records:

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