By Daniel Hubbard | June 21, 2010
It seems that whenever my family travels, I find some tie to our family history. When my wife mentioned wanting to see something of Minnesota, I said, “Fine, I know just where I want to go.” Luckily our children all enjoy historical buildings and living history.
This time my place of pilgrimage was Fort Snelling. One of my great-great-great-grandfathers was a soldier there in the 1820s when it was still known as Fort St. Anthony and his son, my great-great-grandfather, was born there. It is the home of the oldest existing buildings in Minnesota and my ancestors would have been among the few that knew them when they were newly built and, in fact, one quite possibly had a hand in building them.
It gives a special feeling to stand at the actual place where ancestors once stood. Perhaps at some level that is illogical but it is nonetheless true. In this case, it was more than a geographic location. What buildings have not survived have been reconstructed to appear to me the way the originals once appeared to my forebears. I could see the height, width and depth that they once saw.
It is one thing to look at period maps and read descriptions. It is quite another to actually see a part of some ancestors’ world, to enter the space of those ancestors if not their time. It might not help me to find a birth record or a census enumeration, but then again, seeing even just a shadow of their world might impress upon the viewer how difficult travel in one direction was likely to have been compared to travel in another. Those directions can influence migration, the finding of a spouse and where records might have been left.
What literally adds an extra dimension is when there are living history presentations. I’ve never met an interpreter that was portraying an ancestor, nor do I ever expect it to happen though that must happen to some people. What a strange experience that would be were it to come as a surprise. Far more likely is watching an interpreter filling a role that an ancestor filled. I watched infantry in the style of the 1820s. That was certainly a role my soldier ancestor played. I saw an artillery demonstration and learned that because there were no artillerymen at the fort, that this too was a role that he would have learned to play.
I watched a laundress at work and learned that there were three jobs available to the women at the fort. There was hospital laundress, enlisted men’s laundress or for variety, there was officer’s laundress. Interestingly, none of the names for these jobs implied that any laundry was actually being done. Besides learning what my great-great-great-grandmother was doing while at the fort, I learned something else. Surprisingly, perhaps very surprisingly, she was better paid than her husband, and by a lot. Pay at the rate of $8.50 per month may not seem like much to us, but compared to a private’s $5.00 it was not bad at all. Considering that not even a sergeant was paid $8.50 per month, and that equality of pay was not exactly a hot topic in the 1820s, it seems like an astounding salary and it is probably not something I would have learned otherwise.
One might also think that cook would be a position open to women but no. The men rotated through cooking duties for their barracks. Cook, like gardener, farmer, stone mason and carpenter, was a role for a soldier.
So far, none of this has solved a genealogical problem for me. It probably never will but in terms of family history, it makes things that much richer.Twitter It!