Family, technology, and the joys of micro-history

The digital archive maintained by The Seattle Times can open up new paths into family history.

The digital archive maintained by The Seattle Times can open up new paths into family history.

As more and more of the stuff of history — photos, books and documents of the previous few centuries — finds itself getting digitized and turned from mere “content” into valuable “data,” it’s no surprise that the conduct of scholars and historians is changing.  The recent New York Times series “Humanities 2.0” describes how 21st century academics are taking new looks at old times with the help of modern tools, breaking down massive amounts of content into little granular bits of history, revealing patterns that might otherwise be impossible for a single human to divine. 

So I was very pleased when I recently stumbled across The Seattle Times online newspaper archive.  Here visitors can perform keyword searches of the Times from 1900 to 1984. The results appear as a list of links with the date of when the particular item was originally published.  Along with each result, we see a tiny, tantalizing image of a portion of the item — an actual scan of how it appeared in the paper as many as a 100 or as few as 26 years ago. 

My first search (keyword “banel” — no surprise!) turned up birth announcements for older siblings born here, and then for me (no surprises there, either, thank goodness), and the preview scan was big enough to see the entire minimal detail of such items.  The search also mistakenly turned up a number of inconsequential classified ads with the word “barrel” or “panel,” revealing minor flaws in the search function.  Not a big deal.  Most interesting was an item from 1969 that appears to quote my late father in his professional capacity with the Seattle Building Department. I say “appears,” because when I clicked on the preview image, I was directed to a screen quoting the price for seeing the entire article. Huh? Price? No way. Any amount would be too high. 

I may be either too old or too young, but I’m definitely just too cheap to be willing to pay to see an old newspaper article that is unlikely to add anything substantive to my understanding of my father. But I was hooked on the possibilities suggested by preview images of those teeny little birth announcements, and the classified ads for barrels and panels, and I wasn’t quite willing to give up just yet on my own granular bits of family history. 

My next keyword was an easy choice: “822-7886,” the long-discarded phone number of the original Banel homestead on Rose Hill near Kirkland. I was immediately rewarded with a classified ad that appeared on May 5, 1974 offering for sale a certain 1958 Plymouth station wagon (“good parts, transmission, radio, $50”), that I happen to know was driven to Seattle by my parents in 1959. 

The Denny Party is well-known for settling in what’s now Seattle in November 1851, and their journey from Cherry Grove, Ill., first by horse-drawn wagon and then by boat is the stuff of history, legend, and the city’s pioneer myth.  One can’t help but admire and feel grateful to the plucky young settlers for the hurdles they overcame so that we all might someday call this place home. 

But I confess, more important to me personally is the story of The Banel Party who came to Seattle by way of Europe, New York, and California in 1959. This plucky, not-quite-so-young couple and their four eldest children arrived in Seattle 108 years after the Dennys, but they came here from far away and overcame hurdles for the same basic reason: for a chance at a better life than what they’d left behind.

The ’58 Plymouth that carried The Banel Party was in pretty bad shape by the time I can remember riding in it with my dad to the old Houghton Transfer Station with the household trash, and I can vaguely recall watching out the front window when a buyer hauled it away for scrap. Now, thanks to the Seattle Times archive, I know that happened circa May 1974. 

Subsequent searches on phone numbers of other family and friends revealed other granular family history gems: asking price of a neighbor’s beagle pups (we bought one in June 1975) and the 1980 sale by my father-in-law of a car that figures in a few key anecdotes from that side of the family. 

We owe a debt of gratitude to The Seattle Times. First, for helping countless dads unload broken down old cars over the years, and second for reminding us to never forget our own personal pioneer myths.


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