Genealogy of Communities: Exploring Collectives

Prepared by Elisabeth Lindsay.

"It was so cold that words froze right in the air." So go the tales of a logging camp, and a more colorful tale hardly exists than that Paul Bunyan and his faithful Babe, the Blue Ox. It is said, "Some of the older men even claim to have known him or been members of his crew." The tales were tall and, like Paul, people of unique character were brought together, and not in logging camps only, but in communities across the land that appeared and disappeared as if by magic. People throughout history have at various times in their lives lived within a community outside of the family unit. A college student living in a dorm is a common example. But there have been and will continue to be others from all walks of life and all age groups who for one reason or another find themselves living in close quarters with a common purpose.

The process of locating these ancestors on the move is the focus of this series.

It would be convenient for researchers if all of our ancestors stayed in one place, in nice tidy family groups so they would be easier to find. But that is not what life is about: life is about moving forward, which many people do, literally and figuratively, often leaving families behind. Therein lies the adventure and the story. The challenge for researchers is learning new ways to pinpoint family members in time and place as they migrated in and through these new communities. For an overview, see The Genealogy of Communities.

Consider the logging camps. Logging has been around as long as man needed to fell trees for warmth and shelter. In America, from northeast to northwest, the logging industry set up and moved from one camp to another across the land. And not loggers only but those who followed the camps, providing supplies and services. Who were these loggers and and how to find them is the subject of Logging Camps.

In researching intentional communities, patterns emerge and we learn more, perhaps, about how our ancestor came to be in a particular group and what life was like. Fishing camps, like logging camps were a haven for new immigrants, were they mixed or of a single ethnicity, married or single? Once you find your ancestor in a particular place, you can now search for records. To learn more about where fishing camps are found and the make-up of different groups, see Fishing Camps.

And not all communities were outposts, many exist within towns and cities, among them educational institutions. In earlier times living in dorms was not as common: many lived in boarding houses. And a variety of people might live in a boarding house, even adolescent children alone without family. Learning more about the culture of the times, combining sources, and the terminology for researching boarding houses is the focus of Seminaries and Other Educational Communities.

It is not common to think of Indian reservations as communities of choice; there was little choice for them in going there. Yet many who lived on reservations were not Native American and were there of their own choosing. And many of the occupations found on Indian reservations differ from what we commonly see, and some may have been foreign-born. To get an idea of how the two different groups interacted and how the two different cultures were listed on the census, see Indian Reservations.

Prisons are another community where residents are not there by choice, but may be surrounded by others who are, inside or outside the prison walls. Prison inmates may be referenced under different terms, but prisoners "boarding" with families! Understanding more about the dynamics of the community within and without is the subject of Prisons.

Researching asylums and other such institutions can be challenging -- it was a different age, not nearly so many records or family members identifying residents, who were not always able to answer for themselves. It was also a time when confidentiality was not an issue as it is today, so more information might be available on patient condition. And like other intentional but secured communities, there is a support staff: one might not think to look for their ancestor in an asylum, but his or her work might well have placed them there. For more on the strategies of researching these institutions, see Asylums, Hospitals, and Sanitariums.

While it might not be exactly the place you'd like to find an ancestor, certainly these women were somebody's daughter, sister, mother. Some might be intrigued at finding an ancestor in a brothel. And what a job for the census taker! Interesting about brothels as intentional communities, in addition to the different ways their occupation might be referenced is that single name pseudonyms were common. How does one find an ancestor who is listed under a pseudonym? Find out more in, Prostitution.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are faith-based communities, although we do know there are so-called faith-based communities that were not of good report. In general, faith-based communities might be overlooked: was your ancestor in a convent, by chance? Individuals and families may have joined a faith and moved into a select community; some religious groups suffering persecution abroad, immigrated to the New World. For more information on researching this important group, see Faith-Based Communities.

Some groups collected together based more on a philosophy than a faith, such is the case with Utopias, typically a collective with all things in common. It was an idealized lifestyle that often fell short of the ideal, with members drifting away. There were also Utopian communities tied to employment, with features all their own. Learn more about researching these communities The Utopias.

The wait is almost over for the release of the 1940 U.S. Federal Census, and it is interesting to consider what types of communities might emerge. And while the census is a great finding tool, there are other records to consider and other countries outside of the U.S. where intentional communities existed. To take a look forward and what we might begin considering in more recent times, see Intentional Community in the Next Century.

This wiki article is locked. If you have additional information (or a correction) that you would like to share, please send us a note.

<< Archived Materials

What's New in Genealogy ... Today!
click to view original photo