Digital Treasure Hunting
As a freelance writer and author, I spend a great deal of my time doing historical online research. To be honest, it is this part of the process that I think I enjoy the most. It’s like a treasure hunt for information – to prove or refute details that tell one story, or another.
My interest in the digging for the truth and all the nitty gritty details began when I was in elementary school. Specifically, the year my family took a summer trip to Gettysburg and other areas around Pennsylvania and New York researching our ancestors. In between reading countless books by Beverly Clearly and Judy Blume that summer, we visited township halls, libraries and cemeteries looking at documents on microfilm (feeding dimes into the machine as the film whizzed by on the giant and intimidating machines), scouring volumes for tidbits of information and piecing together our family tree. At the time, I found it boring and tedious, but thinking back I know this was the foundation on which my future was build.
My dad is an avid genealogist, tracing our ancestors (multiple branches) back generations. He has amassed countless photographs, documents and clippings that tell a rich story of our family. I’ve followed his lead as I’ve worked to gather data about the historical figures that appear in my articles and books – lighthouse keepers primarily, but also others like covered bridge builder Pearson Bodmer (for years, known to me as Pierce Bodnar); escaped slave Adam Crosswhite who lived in Marshall; and, of course, Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winning author (and Michigan summer resident) Ernest Hemingway.
While I truly miss being inside libraries, town halls, cemeteries and other municipal buildings doing my research, I am thankful that every day more and more resources are posted online for searching. Not a week goes by that I don’t spent time searching sites like Ancestry.com, FamilySearch.org, Newspapers.com and FindAGrave.com. Searching the Census data becomes quite a challenge, given how many names were misspelled or changed over the years – but when you finally piece things all together, the “ah-ha” moment is exhilarating (at least to me).
I’m also registered with the Michigan History Center Archives and the National Archives. College libraries are other valuable resources, with the Clarke Historical Library at Central Michigan University; the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University; and the University of Michigan Library are rich with digital historical artifacts (photographs, maps, newspaper clippings, court documents). Did you know you can search old death records (among other things) at Michiganology.com? Or, that you can search the story archives for Michigan History Magazine online?
When it comes to lighthouses, the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Lighthouse Society Digital Archives, Maritime Archives of the Great Lakes, Great Lakes Maritime Collection at the Alpena Library, Wisconsin Maritime Museum and the Maritime Archives at Chicago’s National Archives are priceless.
I’ve also found that local historical societies, museums, genealogical groups and even cemeteries provide a wealth of information. Greenwood Cemetery in Petoskey has recently digitized the local newspapers dating back to the 1800s, which enhances what Newspapers.com has to offer. While researching a specific female lighthouse keeper recently, I was directed to the vast collection of The Henry Ford (turns out the auto leader’s aunt was the said keeper I was tracking down).
Fold3.com is a military spin-off of Ancestry.com, and it – along with the National Parks soldier database – are helpful resources I found while working with fellow writer Stewert James in promoting his historical novel, The Penny.
But, be warned! Once you begin using these resources to search for information, you’ll likely become addicted (as I have). One search leads to another to another and before you know it, hours have passed and you may (or may not) have found the information you were looking for.
What websites do you find helpful for your online research?