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Pieces of the past

It’s a feeling like no other in genealogy. It’s a combination of joy… and amazement… and awe. There’s a sense of tangibility to your family history, of connection to your past, that nothing else can bring.

It’s that moment when you hold history in your hand.

For some, it will be a family Bible. There are none of those in my family, on either side, that have been owned and written in by my direct forebears.

For others, it may be a letter, or a diary. Again, for my family’s distant past, there are none of those for me. Most of my ancestors were poor, most uneducated, many unable to read or write, some unable even to sign their names.

So for my family it’s records, held in public archives, carefully preserved as part not just of my family history, but of the history of this nation. It’s one of many reasons why I am so personally committed to the fight to protect access to records in our public archives.

For I have been graced by so many of those moments, when I have held history in my hand.

In the North Carolina State Archives, there is a petition dated the 22nd of October 1790, addressed to the General Assembly of the State of North Carolina. In it, my fourth great grandfather David Baker explained that “he had his dwelling house and every part and parcel of his house hold furniture together with all his Papers Consumed by fire on the night of the Twenty fifth day of December 1787,” and he asked the Legislature to make good for soldiers and jury certificates that had been burned in the fire.1

The Legislature reimbursed him for the jury certificates but the soldiers certificates were for his service in the Continental Line in the Revolutionary War and he was told to seek help from the federal government on those.2

You can’t help but sit there with that document in your hand and carefully, delicately, trace David’s signature with your fingertip… and mourn the family’s losses in that Christmas Day fire of 1787.

Seventy years after David’s petition, another fourth great grandfather, Boston Shew, was struggling to try to establish and support a very young second family in Arkansas.3 To do that he bought land from the federal government.

His file, held in the National Archives, contains this priceless document — his affidavit that he was actually settling on and cultivating the land.4

We’re not sure what happened to Boston and his second wife; his sons by that marriage were back in Cherokee County, Alabama in 1870.5 That may explain why Boston never picked up the actual patent for his land. That too is in his file.6

Boston’s son, my third great grandfather Daniel Shew, also bought land from the federal government, but some years earlier back in Cherokee County. His file contains his signature on an affidavit swearing that — including this land transaction — he wouldn’t have received more than 320 acres under the act of 4 August 1854.7

Exactly when and where Daniel died is also something we don’t know. But his widow Margaret was enumerated alone with their three children in the 1860 census.8 That may explain why Daniel didn’t pick up his patent either. 9

You can’t help put sit there and carefully, gently, run your fingers over the raised seal at the bottom of the page.

And rejoice at holding history in your hand.


  1. North Carolina General Assembly, Joint Papers of the Committee of Propositions and Grievances, November 6-20, 1790, Report in Favor of David Baker (with Petition and Deposition), call no. GASR Nov-Dec 1790, Box 2; North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh.
  2. Ibid.
  3. 1860 U.S. census, Izard County, Arkansas, Franklin Township, population schedule, p. 349 (stamped), dwelling 150, family 148, Boston Shew household; digital image, ( : accessed 5 Oct 2012); citing National Archive microfilm publication M653, roll 43; imaged from FHL microfilm 803043.
  4. Affidavit for Actual Cultivation and Settlement, 27 Feb 1860, patent no. 18,264, final patent date 1 October 1860, in Boston Shew (Izard County, Arkansas) land entry file, Batesville, Arkansas, Land Office; Land Entry Files, Arkansas; Records of the Bureau of Land Management, Record Group 49; National Archives, Washington.
  5. 1870 U.S. census, Cherokee County, Alabama, Leesburg, population schedule, p. 268(B) (stamped), dwelling/family 23, B and J D Shoe in R M Hale household; digital image, ( : accessed 5 Oct 2012); citing National Archive microfilm publication M593, roll 7; imaged from FHL microfilm 545506.
  6. Patent no. 18,264, in Boston Shew (Izard Co., Ark.) land entry file.
  7. Affidavit, 12 Oct 1854, patent no. 17,317, final patent date 1 January 1859, in Daniel Shew (Cherokee County, Alabama) land entry file, Lebanon, Alabama, Land Office; Land Entry Files, Alabama; RG 49; NA-Washington.
  8. 1860 U.S. census, Cherokee County, Alabama, population schedule, p. 315 (stamped), dwelling/family 829, Margaret Shoe household; digital image, ( : accessed 5 Oct 2012); citing National Archive microfilm publication M653, roll 5; imaged from FHL microfilm 803005.
  9. Patent no. 17,317, in Daniel Shew (Cherokee Co., Ala.) land entry file.
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