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Looking beyond mere geography

The Legal Genealogist would never have thought of going to Philadelphia to research her North Carolina ancestors.

Or to consider in more detail the death of George Washington at his beloved estate Mount Vernon in northern Virginia.

HSP1Or even to look into wills and deeds from early settlers of southern New Jersey.

There are other more obvious candidates for that kind of research, right?


And also wrong.

Very wrong.

Because there are treasures to be found in Philadelphia in each of those outside-of-Philadelphia topics, and some of them can’t be found anywhere but in Philadelphia.


The Library of The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, a repository I hadn’t visited before I was asked to speak there last night and introduce its members and library patrons to the use of DNA as part of our genealogical toolkit.

I have the good fortune to be friends with several members of the Greater Philadelphia Area chapter of the Association of Professional Genealogists and one of them, Sandra Hewlett, arranged to have me given a tour of the HSP library by Lee Arnold, Senior Director of the Library and Collections.

To say I was stunned at the scope of the HSP Library’s holdings is to understate things by a pretty fair margin.

Because I had certainly expected it to have, as the HSP’s website says, “collections … from the perspective of the Philadelphia region, the diverse members, migrations, and experiences of the American family, the roots of the United States, and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s history.”1

But I didn’t expect the entire rooms of volumes on other states, not just those in the mid-Atlantic region but from farther afield — including shelf after shelf of works focusing on North Carolina, the result of a bequest to the HSP library by one of its members who lived in Philadelphia but had been born in the Tarheel State.

I didn’t expect the extraordinary variety of ethnic materials from around the country, partly the result of the merger in 2002 with the Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies, including “records of ethnic benefit groups, politics and community advocacy, and ethnic media, such as newspapers, pamphlets, and other printings, that contain information regarding genealogy, family history, neighborhood history, political history, women’s history, and labor history.”2

I didn’t expect the diary kept by Tobias Lear of New Hampshire with its detailed account of the 1799 death of George Washington at Mount Vernon. It was amazingly moving to see the words, written in iron gall ink, quoting the First President in his last hours: “I feel myself going, I thank you for your attentions; but I pray you to take no more trouble about me, let me go off quietly; I cannot last long.”3

And I certainly didn’t expect to see a document bearing the original signature of Lorenzo de Medici, a Florentine who lived during the Italian Renaissance, dated 1479!

As I said, the holdings are just stunning. Other treasures that I was privileged to see — and that thanks to digital technology, you can see too — included:

• An original of a draft of the Articles of Confederation, prepared by John Dickinson in June 1776.

• An original of a very early draft of the United States Constitution, prepared in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787.

• A handwritten copy of The Star-Spangled Banner, penned by Francis Scott Key and given by Key to a friend, a Pennsylvania military officer and U.S. Representative named William H. Keim, around 1840.

• A printed copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, personally signed by Abraham Lincoln and his secretary of state William Seward.

• William Still’s Journal C of Station No. 2 of the Underground Railroad, with its names and detailed descriptions, dates and family details of the runaway slaves who came through that station in 1855.

The very first photograph ever taken in the United States, a daguerrotype image of the Central High School for Boys and the Pennsylvania State Arsenal, dating from the fall of 1839.

These documents, and many others, are available online. But the vast majority of the 21 million items held by the HSP and its library are not digitized. For some, the only cataloguing is a card catalog on the library’s main floor. So it’d be easy, all too easy, even for folks like me who live close by in a neighboring state, to overlook the HSP Library or to think that it’d be too hard to use it.

But the key lesson to be learned from last night is a basic one for all of us as genealogists and researchers: we need to think outside the research box, and particularly outside of the geographic box, and to get out of our chairs and off our computers.

The reality is that, because of the mobility of our ancestors and donations by members and patrons, any library — one like the HSP Library or a university library or a public library — anywhere in the country, indeed anywhere in the world, might have part or all of the answer to a perplexing family mystery a long way away from where that mystery played out.

And those library holdings, for the most part, are not online.

So while it may be that North Carolina is where we’ll find other more obvious candidates for North Carolina research.

But let’s not ever overlook places like Philadelphia.

Time for some road trips…


  1. Collection Scope,” Historical Society of Pennsylvania ( : accessed 18 Mar 2015).
  2. The Balch Institute,” Historical Society of Pennsylvania ( : accessed 18 Mar 2015).
  3. A transcription of an excerpt of the Lear Journal, prepared by Library Director Lee Arnold, is available at the HSP website. “Transcription of Excerpt from Tobias Lear’s Journal, documenting death of George Washington 1799,” Record No. 419, Historical Society of Pennsylvania ( : accessed 18 Mar 2015).
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