Juvenile Instructor » Found in the Archives: Heidi Harris, “Too coincidental to be merely coincidental”
 


Found in the Archives: Heidi Harris, “Too coincidental to be merely coincidental”

By: Heidi - October 21, 2012

We’re delighted to feature this contribution from JI’s good friend and former blogger Heidi Harris as part of our “I Found it in the Archives” series.

As Christopher informed me this past week, it’s National Archives Month. Let’s all take a moment to appreciate our favorite historical discovery or mourn all those lost hours of daylight. Hug an archivist today, if you can find one. They usually hide out in the back, but you can lure them out by touching old photographs without the provided cotton gloves, or attempting to take scissors into the reading room.

My experience with real archive experience began when I worked for BYU Special Collections for three years while getting my undergrad degree. I loved my job. I loved the curators. I loved that extremely handsome and intriguing co-worker of mine who eventually became my husband (great story, but maybe another time). I also loved the collections themselves. I remember taking pictures with the Cecil B DeMille costumes (don’t tell anyone) and finding more personal treasures like

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an oral history from my great-grandmother,

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Xarissa. One summer, I worked extra hours restoring a glass-plate photograph collection to prepare it for digitization. I remember painstakingly cleaning each of those 14,000 images with a cotton ball while my co-workers and I watched “You’ve Got Mail.”

Like I was saying, I loved my job.

After I graduated, I never really forgot how much I enjoyed the archives at BYU and so I applied for an American Studies PhD program where I geared my studies toward Cultural History and American Religion in the 19th century.

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At the end of my second year, I had to write a long paper with original research that would serve as provisional Master’s thesis. I flailed around a bit in various Boston-area libraries, but I finally came back to BYU’s collection, knowing that those thousands of central-Utah photographs had been digitized (as the George Edward Anderson Collection)–and I knew those photographs very, very well. Cleaned-with-a-cotton-ball kind of knowledge.

Some of my first posts here at JI summarized the various sections of the resulting paper I wrote–analyzing the Utah women depicted within the collection and considering whether photographs can serve as primary sources instead of just illustration.

There’s more to this story, by the way.

I ended up leaving my PhD program for a few reasons–the primary one being that I realized I missed doing and truly adored GIS and cartography more than I liked paper presentations and conferences. But, I’ve always retained my passion for cultural history and digging into the lives of everyday people from the past.

Just last month, I decided to do some fiddling around with my genealogy. Fully aware that my pedigree chart had already been pretty thoroughly mapped out by other (older, yes) relatives, I chose to focus on quality over quantity. I spent some time digging up primary sources and uploading them onto ancestry.com so others could use them. And, I did my best to find photographs of every parent, grandparent, great-grandparent, and great-great grandparent. I found all of

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them except one! Just one! The matriarch of my matriarchal line–Rozena Evena Fechser.*

Then, I noticed something about her, something that brought me back to the BYU archives again. She was born and married in Mt. Pleasant, Utah during the end of the 19th century. And…I remembered those hundreds of hours cleaning photographs…and the locations written on the corners of many. Manti, Sanpete,…and Mt. Pleasant.

Excitedly, I searched for her name in the George Anderson database!

Nothing…

But, then…she didn’t go by Fechser her entire life…

Another search for “Madsen” (her husband’s name) and “Mt. Pleasant”…

And there she was. In the only known (and previously so, so very unknown) photograph of her.

It seems too coincidental to be merely coincidental

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I think…that I would find my great-great grandmother in a place that only I would have known to look.

So again, take time this month to appreciate your local archive. You never know what you may find. You never know what you

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may remember and find again in the future.

_______________________

* Rozena also, interestingly enough, had ties to Hamburg, Germany. Her parents and grandparents lived in and emigrated from there. Oh, and you should know that Hamburg happens to be the closest city to where I found myself living as an expat last year. Finding her parent’s address in an old phonebook from 1854, I realized this past week that I’ve walked down that street on almost every visit I’ve made there.

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16 Comments

  1. Heidi, this is wonderful. The combination of cultural and family history you present here is great—I love it when archival research takes on personal meaning as ancestors pop up in the sources I study. And I think your post illustrates well the importance of careful and laborious archival research while also highlighting the usefulness of new technologies in searching for documents, photographs, etc. Great, great stuff. Thanks again for contributing it here!

    Comment by Christopher — October 21, 2012 @ 9:20 am

  2. Heidi makes a triumphant return to JI! I can die in peace, now.

    A wonderful follow-up to one of my favorite posts ever on the blog. And a great reminder that family history is much more than names.

    Comment by Ben P — October 21, 2012 @ 9:38 am

  3. Heidi, this is great. Two of my blind spots have always been material and visual culture, so I’m always jealous of those people who have an eye for it.

    Comment by Amanda HK — October 21, 2012 @ 10:32 am

  4. This is a post that touches on the majority of my passions and therefore is a serious delight! The archive, the serendipity, the personal memories attached to locale: I love it. Thank you, Heidi.

    Comment by Tod Robbins — October 21, 2012 @ 10:50 am

  5. Heidi,

    I’ve been recently convinced of the importance of images in archival research and your post is a helpful reminder. Thanks so much. I too love when archival research makes a turn to the personal.

    And of course your post also reminds us of the fact that the majority of users of archives are genealogists.

    Comment by Robin — October 21, 2012 @ 10:50 am

  6. Thanks, Heidi. I have fond memories of spending time in the HBLL archives as an undergrad. I believe you retrieved some materials for me. Thanks for the great post.

    Comment by David G. — October 21, 2012 @ 12:02 pm

  7. Thank you for the wonderful post, Heidi. I sat down in an archive recently and felt that thrill of emotion as I opened up the folder and saw documents that someone wrote 150 years ago–it doesn’t get any less intense, and that’s what keeps me coming back for more.

    Comment by Nate R. — October 21, 2012 @ 2:11 pm

  8. Very cool.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — October 21, 2012 @ 5:57 pm

  9. How fabulous! This is so wonderful and moving. I firmly believe that, whether we admit it or not, we historians are all engaged in autobiographical search in some form — but how amazing that the experiences and skills you gained studying history led you to fill in such a tangible blank in your own family’s history. Like I said… just fabulous.

    Comment by Cristine — October 21, 2012 @ 6:18 pm

  10. I believe this was orchestrated from beyond :-) What a treasure!

    Comment by anita — October 21, 2012 @ 6:49 pm

  11. A phonebook from 1854? Those Hamburgers really were ahead of their time. :)

    Comment by Mark B. — October 21, 2012 @ 8:15 pm

  12. Thanks for sharing, Heidi!

    Comment by Ryan T. — October 21, 2012 @ 8:50 pm

  13. Heidi, thank you for this wonderful post. What a great situation, how your previous knowledge led you to find something so valuable. And I think we all dream of finding our future spouse in the archives…or maybe that’s just me and other historians? :)

    Comment by Ardis S — October 21, 2012 @ 8:54 pm

  14. I love this post. That is all.

    Comment by JJohnson — October 22, 2012 @ 3:49 am

  15. I really enjoyed your previous posts on the images conserved in the HBLL, and this additional information taps into that same feeling. I wish the images at the CHL had similarly accessible finding aids.

    Comment by J. Stapley — October 22, 2012 @ 12:12 pm

  16. What an exciting discovery, Heidi! I call it the historical method of serendipity. A lot of hard work gets us close enough and then there it is!

    Comment by Max — October 27, 2012 @ 7:27 am