Searching for Your Collegiate Ancestor

By: Carolyn L. Barkley

I’m writing this post from my hotel room overlooking the Salt Palace, site of next week’s RootsTech Conference, in Salt Lake City. I’m looking forward to a week of research before the conference – a few client problems to solve (note the positive attitude)–spending most of the time working on my own family lines, something that I seem to do all too infrequently.

As I have prepared for this trip, I’ve been thinking about the role of a college education in the lives of our ancestors. In my own family, my mother, father and I are the only individuals who have a college education, my father and I proceeding on to receive masters’ degrees. The generational immediacy of college attendance and graduation in my family may not be unusual. There are, however, families for whom the opportunity, and perhaps the expectation, that each generation would attend a college or university was commonplace. Looking for college records may often be an often overlooked step in family research, but it is an important possibility to entertain as we pursue more about our ancestor’s lives.

My first experience with collegiate records was during a trip to the National Archives of Scotland (then still called the Scottish Record Office) some years ago. At the time I was actively compiling content for the Barclay One-Name Study (now the Barclay Genealogical Database). During the course of my several days in Edinburgh, I discovered a book in the SRO reference section listing many years of graduates of Aberdeen University. As the northeast of Scotland is an area populated by many Barclays, I happily transcribed a long list of graduates for the one-name study (and somewhere in a pile under the eaves that transcribed list awaits the light of day).

What sources are available today if you wish to look for collegians in your family research?

  • Alumni Lists. This online database is hosted by Rootsweb and includes 283,724 records that encompass 65,097 distinct surnames. The content derives by submissions from visitors to the site. In searching the site, one can perform both general surname and specific surname/given name searches. A surname search for “Barclay” provided a list of twelve names dating from 1909 to 1979 from schools in Indiana, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Oregon, New York, and Minnesota. It is important to note that entries are not all at the collegiate level. Of the twelve Barclay entries, only one was from an institution of higher education (VPI in Blacksburg, Virginia); the rest of the entries recorded high schools. A surname search for “Barkley” produced a list of ten names; again, the majority of the entries were for high school. However, one 1948 entry for Purdue University provided additional information including the residence of the individual; the date, time and location of the graduation ceremony; the name of the president of the university at the time; and the source of the information. I came by this additional information by clicking on the “more information link.”
  • School Alumni Lists at DistantCousin. This site provides access to a “free online archive of school alumni records (Yearbooks, alumni publications, etc.) and scanned images. A surname search is possible or you can browse alumni lists by location. My standard “Barclay” surname search identified five entries including four Barclays (digitized full-text page images) who appeared on page 34 in the Directory of Former Students of Harvard Living in 1919; the entry included years of attendance and address. A single individual from the class of 1887 who appeared in the 1913 Alumni Record of the University of Illinois, also included the individual’s degree, date and place of birth, parents’ names, marriage date and name of spouse, children’s names and birth dates, and address at the time of publication. I also looked at another database that was supposed to include a Barclay, the Vassar College Class of 1925, but was unable to find the referenced entry. Not all states are available to browse geographically. Those that are available include California, Washington, D.C., Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Wisconsin, and West Virginia. I found eight institutions available for Massachusetts (seven colleges/universities and one high school). Among them was my alma mater, Wellesley College, for which a listing of the class of 1905 provided names and addresses.
  • Ancestry. A card catalog search for “alumni” provided a list of twenty-one links, not all of them pertaining to colleges or universities. Among them, however, are two interesting British databases spanning many centuries: Cambridge University Alumni 1261-1900 and Oxford University 1500-1886. While the fifty-four Barclays included in this database represented several colleges, Trinity was by far the Barclay the most numerous affiliation. By contrast only twelve Barclays were listed in the Oxford database.
  • Cyndi’s List. A search for “yearbooks and annuals” provided access to 156 links to sites, including yearbooks and alumni organizations and resources. One of the most extensive is the Dead Fred Genealogy Photo Archive. Some links point to school specific sites such as the University of Wisconsin School Annual 1883 to 1889, providing cabinet cards of students and faculty for those years.
  • Family History Library. A subject search for “alumni” in the Family History Library Catalog  provided a list of forty-two titles including such interesting titles as Necrology of Alumni of Harvard College; Princetonians: a Biographical Dictionary; The Historical Catalogue of the University of Mississippi 1849-1909, and the interesting sounding Yale’s Confederates: a Biographical Dictionary. If you happen to know your ancestor’s specific college or university, a Google search will assist you in identifying available resources.
  • Notable Alumni by College. If you have a famous person in your family, you will want to check this site. It claims to offer a “complete directory of famous alumni, listed by individual school. Photos and metadata are included in each famous student’s list – although to be clear, the lists are not definitive for graduates, but rather include all notable students who attended a school at one time, not just the prominent alums who graduated with a degree.” You can scroll through an alphabetical listing of famous and not-so famous colleges, universities, and high schools. Included are such surprising (at least to me) entries as Prince Albert II of Monaco, listed under Notable Amherst College Alumni/Students.
  • Just a Joy. This website has established a family heirloom exchange which is an “indexed artifact matching service designed for families who are searching for original authentic items that belonged to their ancestors.” Items on the site are for sale and many items are yearbooks and annuals. Thirteen items are currently available for the surname Barclay including the Dartmouth Freshman Green Book for the class of 1926, the 1957 Yearbook for the 1st Battalion, 2nd Regiment Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri, and the 1942 edition of Yackety Yak, the yearbook from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Talking with family members and reviewing family documents and photographs may document a college or university graduate in your family. Then, with the help of available print and online sources, you may be able to tell the story of the academic life and experiences of your ancestor.




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