You may wonder why an archaeologist like me is writing a column about family history; it might seem I am working outside of my field of specialty. I admit that although I expressed an interest in my own family’s past while still at a tender age, I came to the more formal study of this type of history rather late, in just the last five years. But it really is part of my work as a historic archaeologist.
Perhaps now would be a good time to remind you all what archaeologists actually do: we study past human culture. Often that involves digging artifacts out of the ground. A historic archaeologist studies the more recent past that falls within the era of recorded history, and therefore also deals with historic documents. I’m clarifying this especially since I recently received the latest disheartening request from a school for an archaeologist, because they were planning a trip to the Royal Tyrrell Museum to see the dinosaurs! (Just to review, folks, dinosaurs died out 65 million years ago and people, in some form, didn’t show up until about 2 million years ago – so it is paleontologists, not archaeologists, who study dinosaurs.)
So, why am I studying family history now? Well, I am the secretary for the Archaeological Society of Alberta – Calgary Centre (ASA-CC), and five years ago we began a project at a site called Glenbow, where there was a sandstone quarry and village of the same name, located in what is now Glenbow Ranch Provincial Park (GRPP). I volunteered to do archival research to gather historic documents related to the site, and part of this involved trying to contact descendants of the people who lived and worked there over 100 years ago. This required that I use the same sources as a genealogist does, only I try to come forward in time from 100 years ago to the present, rather than working from the present into the past as is typically the case in genealogy.
With much searching and digging through documents and piecing together clues, I manage to trace families forward into the current time. I then ask if they have any stories or photos of the site that they would be willing to share with the public. So far, I am thrilled to report, almost all have been happy to share what stories or photos they have. I have compiled a brief summary of these stories into the ‘Glenbow Family Photo Album’ which is on display in the Interpretive Centre at GRPP. Twenty-six families are currently included there, although I have researched another ten or so families on top of that. There are so many interesting tales about these early Albertan settlers, that I am writing a more detailed book about them that will eventually be offered for sale.
These families have helped illuminate the history of Glenbow and guide the archaeology there. For example, clues in old photos show us where buildings used to stand. We then compare this information with the house depressions we have mapped. In some cases we have been lucky enough to identify which family lived in which house. Most importantly, the stories of their lives help bring history to life for visitors to the area. History is so much more meaningful when you see a picture of a family and hear details of their heartbreaking struggles and of their triumphant successes.
So, I have been part of ASA-CC’s team at Glenbow for five years and have developed my genealogy skills at the same time. I’ve learned the techniques of family history, but mostly I’ve seen how the stories of individual families can be combined into the larger record of Alberta’s history and development. In doing this research I have contacted people across North America and in Europe. I’ve met so many kind and generous people. I’ve also found several instances of amazing coincidences, including tracing one of the Glenbow families right to my own backyard here in the Sundre and Olds area! It turns out I had seen the exhibit of the ‘Women of Aspenland’ last summer at the Sundre and District Pioneer Village Museum, which included a woman who grew up at Glenbow, I just didn’t know it at the time! My parting thought to you family historians out there is to remember that your family was and is part of a larger community history and that you are shaping our future right now. (No pressure!)
This article was originally printed in the Bergen News and is being reprinted with permission.