Ethno-history has traditionally focused on Native Americans’ ethnicity, nationality, gender, etc., as John Reed Swanton (1873-1958) first envisioned the study. However, today ethno-history includes not only history, but also ethnographic data, journal and diary entries, military records, oral histories, and all kinds of documents like ledgers, ship logs, treaties, contracts, land deeds, maps, photographs and every other way that historically documents the cultural life of those persons or groups that are being written about.
Everyone must have some kind of ethno-historical data in their past. For instance, my husband has personal histories, autobiographies, and published books on his ancestors who immigrated from Norway and Sweden to the United States in the 19th century. In visiting his ancestral paths after arriving in the United States, he has found land deeds, diaries, journals and census records that fit into the genre of ethno-history that reveal a great story ready to be told.
In addition, I, myself have ethno-history of both my Spanish and Swedish ancestry. If a person is not born in North America, there is no Native American ethno-history to be found for them; but the majority of people living in the Anglo-American Global Village arrived here from somewhere else in their fairly recent past. There are historical documents, oral histories, genealogy resources, ship passenger records, and census data that all help to piece together each of our unique stories.
For example I found a book with ethno-history for several generations of my paternal grandmother’s ancestry. The book is in an archived special collections inventory at the University of California Irvine library. I went there to get information from the book and fortunately, in the digital age, I was allowed to take photographs of pages from the book as shown in the photos here.
In compiling your own autobiography you can decide to go back as far as you like in your ancestral past. Adding past ethno-history data to your own story makes it even more unique. Many people will share with you documents that they have, but think no one is interested in them. Others aren’t interested in sharing or learning anything about their ancestors until questioned. Questions to a great aunt or grandmother may open a flood-gate to amazing information that you did not even know exists. All of your ancestors, cousins, aunts, uncles, or grandparents, no matter how distant or how contemporary are part of you and your story.
Some of the things you should start looking for immediately are birth certificates, photographs, maps, journals, diaries, baby books, and military records. Annual celebrations, rituals, or reunions that your family gets together for consistently are good places to track down people for information.
So many things can be found online at Familysearch.org and Ancestry.com. Familysearch.org is free and Ancestry.com requires registration and small fees. There are other sites that you may be familiar with, but these two can get you started in the right direction. The kinds of documents just mentioned are all ethno-history documents that will be pertinent to writing your autobiography.
Some might say that you are not an ethno-historian if you are writing about your own ethnicity or ancestral ties, but you are. We all have historical ties to the past, whether we are Native American or not, and such stories are just as important and relevant in today’s world where families need strengthening and homes need family pride in their heritage, whatever it might be.
Through contemporary stories like autobiographies, historians can gain insights to cultural changes over time. Autobiographies often answer questions of how and why cultural changes were needed, or the nature of how and why the changes took place. The people who live during the times that culture change begins can tell us a lot about underlying causes.
By writing autobiographies, we become noticed historical actors. Our own sense of how events happen may not be the same as other people’s in our same generation, but events told by different narrators gives us a broader perspective of the event. In other words, autobiographies become ethno-history even while we are writing them. They are oral histories written down, with thought and consideration to the times and seasons in which the autobiographer writes his/her own story.