Friday, February 04, 2011

New resources for geneological studies

My maternal grandmother and aunts used to make a day of it: visiting courthouses and parishes out in the Louisiana countryside, they tracked down our ancestors--not just a few generations back, but across the Caribbean and then across the Atlantic, to France, Switzerland, Spain... and across the centuries (to about the 12th century). My brother got the same bug, but since our mom's side is pretty well documented, he took up where Dad's research left off; he and his son left for Ireland the day after Christmas.
As complicated and time-consuming as those studies were, my relatives at least can look records up by last name. For many other Louisianians, that has been the stumbling-block to looking up the family tree: their ancestors were slaves, and slaves often didn't get the courtesy of a family name. Or official records, in most cases.
Church records are a bit of another story. Not that there were last names, but at least there are detailed records of baptisms and marriages, because before the Louisiana purchase, the New Orleans area knew nothing of separation of Church and state: Baptism was the law, and the Church kept all the records.
Of course, they were hand-written records, kept on fragile paper and in ink that fades with time. But the Archdiocese of New Orleans has begun to offer those faint records a kind of electronic permanence by scanning the registers, page by page. Not that they'll be easy to peruse: you'd have to have some clue already as to the dates and names of the people you are looking for (the online documents are pdf format), and spelling changed (or translated!) names from French to Spanish and back again (depending on who was in the Cabildo--or in the rectory--at the time?)--and then you'd have to deal with the way the ink bled through as both sides of the sheet were filled with sacramental details that often included words like "mulatto" "esclabo" "esclava" "libre" and even, poignently, "esclabito primero."
As sad as the context is, having these records available online can serve as an act of reparation for the racism that was so uncritically tolerated (and even shared) by Church personnel. The first volumes to be completed (dating to 1777) went live on Tuesday (appropriately enough, the first day of Black History Month--and of Catholic Press Month).

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