I Found It In the Archives! 2013 National Competition Results

Nacogdoches, Texas, resident Misty Hurley is the winner of the I Found It In The Archives! 2013 national contest sponsored by the Society of American Archivists. Hurley's essay, submitted by the East Texas Research Center, details her study of the logbooks at the Carson-Monk Funeral Home, which, she discovered, contain much more than mere listings of individuals.

Hurley's entry bested four other finalists in the contest in which the public voted for the winner. Hurley's prize includes complimentary airfare to the Council of State Archivists and SAA Joint Annual Meeting in New Orleans this August.

The I Found It In The Archives! campaign was all about using social media to spread the word about the national contest and, in the process, exposing as many people as possible to the wonderful stories of discovery told by our five contestants. Thanks to all who voted and told friends, family, users, and colleagues about this competition.

Here are the five entries from the 2013 national competition:

East Texas Research Center (Winning Essay)

When I was in ninth grade, I went on a family trip to New Orleans and visited St. Louis Cemetery 1. I was fascinated by the architecture, the history, and the simultaneous eeriness and peacefulness of the cemetery. Since then I have studied cemeteries in graduate school and that is how I was introduced to the Cason-Monk Funeral Home logbooks. The logs are not only records of a business, but also a prequel to my own studies of how the individuals came to be in the cemetery.

Like gravestones, the logbooks list details about the deceased, including their name and birthdays, but unlike most stones, the logs sometimes also list the cause of death, family members, race, religion, burial location, and the costs of the funeral. This gives information about the individual's life as well as what life and death were like in days passed. The cause of death was a surprising category. Though many records that I reviewed were from the twentieth century, it was stunning how common childhood death, death during childbirth, and trampling by horses remained.

Though Nacogdoches remains a small, rural town, it claims to be the oldest in the state, so it is difficult to imagine such a rough, Wild West-type atmosphere in a town that had been around for one hundred-plus years.

What fascinated me the most is that although a cemetery and date may be listed in the log, that did not necessarily mean that the individual was interred there at that particular time. Weather events such as floods meant that the chosen cemetery may have been inaccessible to the funeral procession, while freezing or drought conditions may have prevented undertakers from being able to dig the grave as soon as planned. This explains why in my study of gravestones, some individuals are buried away from their family's plot. The rest of the details such as religion, race, and family names give more of an identity to the individuals. This information is helpful because in working with gravestones these details are usually only evidenced through the location in the cemetery, iconography, and epitaphs, if at all.

My work with the Cason-Monk logbooks has opened a new and unexpected wealth of information about the lives and deaths of the citizens of Nacogdoches, information that I will be able to use in my thesis to teach about life in Nacogdoches through death.


Earl Gregg Swem Library, College of William & Mary

The headstone in Bruton Parrish Cemetery simply reads “Sacred To The Memory of Reuben Smith. Born November 6th, 1822, Died February 27th, 1843. Aged 20 Years, 3 Months, and 21 Days.”


I noticed it every day when walking in Williamsburg, but it seemed there was no possible way to find further information on this young man who died at such a tragically early age.


Then, amazingly, while visiting Fort Smith, Arkansas, the brochure listed a Reuben Smith amongst the children of the military general for whom the fort was named. And dates checked out.


I discovered that Reuben was the younger brother of Lucy Ann Smith (buried at the obelisk beside him.) He came to Williamsburg to live with her and her husband, Nathaniel Beverley Tucker in the Tucker House on Nicholson Street. Reuben attended the College of William and Mary, graduating in 1842.


But how did he die?


Desperate to find more information, I wrote an essay, “Who Was Reuben Smith?” that was printed in the Virginia Gazette. The best advice in response was, “Go to Swem Library.”


As I sat in the exclusive reading room of the library and held in my hands an actual letter written by Reuben to his sister, I felt an excitement I had never experience before. I discovered a charming, witty young man who played chess, loved to dance and fence, who enjoyed hot cornbread (never cold!), and who teased his dear friend George Upshur by stealing and smoking his cigars (to preserve George’s health!)


I smiled and laughed as I browsed the letters, and then, in the form of a letter of condolence from George to Lucy Ann, the information we had been seeking. Reuben aspired to become a doctor. He and George travelled to Philadelphia staying in lodgings (“We slept high—on the fourth floor!”) Here, while tending the poor in the alms houses, he contracted tuberculosis.   He returned to Williamsburg for the Christmas break in 1842 and died in an upstairs room of the Tucker House in February 1843.


George completed his studies and married. He died a hero at 33 caring for patients during the epidemic of yellow fever in Norfolk.


Their stories are sad, but now Reuben, George, and Lucy Ann live again in my heart, and I thank Swem Library for collecting and preserving these precious letters, giving us the opportunity of connecting with the past.



Ohio Historical Society

I grew up knowing little about my family’s history. However, for some inexplicable reason, one extremely vague story did stick with me over the years—a strange tale about an unnamed ancestor who was last seen walking into a burning building in Toledo, Ohio. Four years ago, surrendering to a single moment of curiosity about my ancestors, I soon found myself spending countless hours of treasure-hunting in the Ohio Historical Society Archives—an ancestral ‘magical mystery tour’ that I never planned, leading to discoveries I could never have imagined.

The first surprise discovery was that there actually was a real Detective Tracy, my great-grandfather, with the Toledo Police Department from 1898 to 1921. He was often front-page news during his career and left behind a trail of hundreds of newspaper articles about his adventures in the rowdy pre-Prohibition days in Toledo. From microfilmed newspapers at OHS, I was able to compile his story into a series of three coffee-table books, now housed in the Toledo Police Museum.

Next, the name ‘Fraser’, mentioned in a short Toledo newspaper article about Detective Tracy, led me to another unexpected discovery: the tragic, yet inspiring, story of Detective Tracy’s uncle, Captain James Fraser, a Toledo firefighter, Irish immigrant and Civil War veteran who died in the 1894 King-Quale Elevator fire that nearly destroyed all of downtown Toledo. In that fire, Fraser’s partner, Alfred Blaine, was with Captain Fraser in the room when it exploded. Miraculously surviving the devastation, Blaine was able to graphically describe Fraser’s last moments, as Fraser faded forever into the smoke—clearly the event that was the essence of that hazy childhood story that I had carried with me all these years.

Despite sifting through the steaming ashes for many days, Fraser’s remains were never found—only a partially melted brass fire hose nozzle and two melted brass suspender buckles. To this day Fraser’s remains lie beneath the sod and concrete of Toledo’s Promenade Park, unbeknownst to park visitors.

Captain Fraser’s story inspired me to document all of it in a book, now housed in the Toledo Firefighters Museum and, more importantly, to apply for an Ohio Historical Marker (#48-61), which was approved in April of 2012. The marker is now temporarily housed in the Toledo Firefighters Museum, awaiting its permanent placement in Toledo’s Promenade Park in the spring of 2013.

All of this from a single moment of curiosity.


Shasta Historical Society (Redding, CA)

Quest for information—those three words could not begin to describe the journey that consumed over four years of my life. Research through the library, use of interlibrary loans, and sitting for long hours combing through microfilm led to an extraordinary journey into the world of a racing thoroughbred named Noor.

It all started with an inquiry by Gae Seal on Laura Hillenbrand’s website, asking about Charles “Seabiscuit” Howard’s other champion Noor and his burial site at Loma Rica Ranch, Grass Valley, California. I became curious, so I went to the library and began scanning through microfilm from 1950, looking for any references to Noor. Requests for interlibrary loans of leading newspapers in California followed. The journey had begun, Noor’s and mine.

Days, weeks, months, and years passed, as I did this research. Little did I realize that the information I was gathering would help me during one of the most important periods in my life and preserve the legacy of this long forgotten racehorse. Loma Rica Ranch was in a development phase and Noor’s grave was in jeopardy. The training track where Noor was buried was destined to become a business park with buildings and parking lots. If I didn’t try to fight for him, he would be lost forever. Armed with information from over 700 articles, I began attending public hearings stating my reasons why Noor’s grave should be protected. Those articles gave me the base of knowledge that was indisputable, and I used that information to champion his cause.

Finally, an agreement was drawn up between the developer and a descendant of Charles Howard, giving me 18 months to move him. Noor had been dead for 36 years and the condition of his remains concerned me. Funds were raised, and on August 26, 2011, Noor was successfully disinterred. Taking him cross-country to Old Friends in Georgetown, Kentucky, Noor was reburied on August 30, 2011, with ceremonies held the following day.

Whether talking with Planning Commissioners, City Council members, developers, or the media, I could not have completed this mission, had it not been for the articles and on-going assistance from the Reference Librarians. Author Milton Toby has recently written a book entitled, Noor.

Now Noor sleeps the sleep of the prince that he was. People visit Old Friends everyday and hear of his deeds on the track; the four-time conqueror of the mighty Citation.




University of Southern Mississippi, School of Library and Information Science

One Saturday, my library volunteer and I sifted through boxes of archived documents, tracing library acquisitions. Briefly glancing at each signature, my volunteer quickly sifted through one box while I worked with another box. Suddenly, she called me over. The signature, unusually legible, was unexpected. Instead of flowery cursive writing, this signature appeared rigid, as if written above the guide of a ruler. Indeed, a faint, scored line was seen below the signature. We were not only shocked but full of excitement, for it was Helen Keller’s signature that we saw! She had written this letter to garner support for her social causes. Finding this letter was exciting, as nearly everyone has read of her success in spite of the overwhelming odds against her. Being blind and deaf, she overcame many difficulties, succeeding in her personal, academic, and social life.

For anyone acquainted with individuals, as I am, who have lost their sense of vision or hearing, her life may be an inspiration. With these acquaintances, I realize I could never understand the numerous obstacles with which she dealt, those apparent and silent. Additionally, I have read her autobiography, an interesting volume. After reading this volume, I had the opportunity to visit her homestead, in Tuscumbia, Alabama, viewing the water pump where the American Sign Language symbols for the alphabet came alive with the letters spelling w-a-t-e-r.

With this background, I was thrilled to see her signature, testifying of her overall success in life. While not everyone has dealt with these same obstacles, nearly everyone recognizes the courage Helen Keller had. If she accomplished so much, what can be accomplished in our lives if we are willing to persist in spite of existing difficulties?