As this semester progresses, I realize more and more how similar Digital History is to Historical Archaeology. Where one researcher is brushing dust off artifacts, another is pouring through archives and databases for their very own dusty material. The more time you spend digging around, the more information you can gather and the more you can deduce about the past.
This week we have been making some serious developments in our Digital History course as we settle into our “pit” of 1900 Harrisburg. Our second project on the “City Social” has involved troweling through both the 1900 property tax records of Harrisburg and also the 1900 Harrisburg census. Instead of cataloging hundreds of artifacts, we have been cataloging hundreds of human beings. For 500 people in Ward 9 in 1900 Harrisburg, I entered their full names, address of their property, property value, and their occupation value into a spreadsheet on Microsoft Excel.
Ultimately our objective is to select an attribute about the population and discuss it respecting the larger Harrisburg atmosphere of 1900. Following this step of analysis is the creation of a database where we will select a number of people within our chosen categories and provide information about them. Each citizen of Harrisburg from 1900 we have the privilege of interacting with through records functions almost like an artifact. We can observe them and try to explain their situations to the best of our ability.
In my data entry for the property tax listings in Ward 9, I have been fascinated by the female free holding property owners. The most expensive property I’ve recorded to date, worth $20,000, was owned by a Mrs. A. E. Alleman on Muench and 4th Street. Other women also were responsible for sizable amounts of property in Harrisburg. It is tentatively my plan to investigate the notable female property holders and their role in early 20th century Harrisburg. Like archaeologists, my goal is to tell a larger story and give a voice to the voiceless.
Also, this past week our Digital History class may have found the Holy Grail of Digital Archaeology in 1900 Harrisburg. As we were exploring the options Microsoft Excel and Access offered to our
research of the 1900 Harrisburg census, we did a test study on Native Americans listed under the “race” category in the census. At the beginning we knew there were five listed Native Americans in the census. The Johnson family is fascinating as it comprises a 45 year old mother of two daughters and one son with the addition of a 12 year old Native American girl who boards in the home. Almost all of them have been born in different places indicating to us the family moves around a lot. What we didn’t know about this family was who the head of the household was. I then proceeded to enter in a specialized Access search for all members living at 921 Penn Street. We almost jumped out of our seats with excitement when we discovered the husband and father of the household was a 43 year old African American clergyman. I hope that we will be able to keep up with the Johnsons and learn more about their captivating life as a family as we pursue further research in Digital History.
At the end of the day, Digital History is a lot like Historical Archaeology, only slightly less messy. Whether a historian is interpreting material artifacts or digital ones, there is immense value in being able to take a peak into the past in order to share pieces of history with the public. For our second project, I hope to find myself elbow deep in the mud of a digital excavation with lots of stories to tell with all the artifacts we are finding.