What are the odds?!: Finding a Personal Connection through Transcription

What are the odds?!: Finding a Personal Connection through Transcription

In honor of Volunteer Appreciation Month, we are very pleased to be sharing volunpeer perspectives and experiences here on the blog. In this post, Ann Birnie shares her story of finding an ancestor in the Freedmen's Bureau Records. If you have a story you’d like to share on Marginalia, we’d love to hear from you. Reach out at transcribe@si.edu.



If there is a perfect activity for being quarantined by COVID, transcribing is high on the list. I was elated to find the Smithsonian Transcribing Project a few months ago. Honestly, I must admit this with some egg on my face. I have been a Smithsonian volunteer at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC for the past ten years! And I only found out about the transcribing project NOW?! – SHAMEFUL! 


I have been working on the Freedmen’s Bureau papers and have come to appreciate a connection with the Civil War that I never would have imagined. It took time to get used to some truly atrocious penmanship (if you can call it that...), but with concentration, the words start to appear. I decided on the North Carolina Freedmen’s papers. I nearly fell out of my chair a few nights ago when I discovered a relative! My last name has a rather unique spelling, so imagine my shock in coming across an officer with the same last name on the N.C. Freedmen’s Bureau list of assistant commissioners and field office staff.  



The name “Birnie” appears 627 times (so far!) in transcribed Freedmen’s Bureau records. William’s signature is visible in this record of letters sent from the Lincolnton, North Carolina Subordinate Field Office in 1868



My mother kept a very detailed family tree, which I immediately pulled out and was able to confirm he was the nephew of my great, great, grandfather – so, my cousin, however many times removed! What are the odds!? I was so excited that I shared my find with Emily Cain, the Transcription Community Coordinator, who was gracious enough to take it one step further and initiate a search of previously-transcribed documents. (THANK YOU, EMILY!)  


Cousin William! How nice to finally meet you!  





Ann Birnie is a long-time member of the Smithsonian volunteer family. After 10 years volunteering her time at the National Museum of Natural History, she joined the Transcription Center digital volunteer community a little over 2 months ago.