Bates Area resident Mari Maxwell’s National Archives Prologue Magazine article “Discovering Your Neighborhood”

Click on the link to read the entire Archives article by Bates Area resident and historian M. Marie Maxwell:

National Archives

Prologue Magazine

Discovering Your Neighborhood

How to Use National Archives Records to Find Out More about Where You Live

By M. Marie Maxwell

Many people use the United States census to discover their family roots, but these same tools can be used to discover a neighborhood’s background.

Just as you may be intrigued to discover that your great-grandfather was a miner, you may get that same thrill of discovery to find out that your house, your street, and maybe your block was home to immigrant factory workers. You share blood with your ancestors; you share a place with your neighbors from the past.

There is nothing out of the ordinary about the Truxton Circle neighborhood in Washington, D.C. As far as I know, no famous people lived there. It houses no embassies, nor has it been the location of any notable historical event. It is special only because I live there and wondered what kind of neighborhood this was and who lived here.

To answer these questions, I went to the census.

Census records, with their questions about an individual’s race, occupation, parents’ place of birth, and other details, are a treasure trove of information for genealogists, who use them to find family relations. But these details, when combined with their neighbors’ particulars, can provide an image of a neighborhood, complete with class and racial composition. The census is the best source for this research since it attempts to capture all residents regardless of race, gender, occupation, or lack thereof.


M. Marie Maxwell is an archives specialist in NARA’s Research Services Division, Textual Processing, in Washington, D.C. She has shared her knowledge of neighborhood history to community groups, at conferences, and on the Web. She received her M.A. in history from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and her M.L.S. with a specialty in archives from the University of Maryland–College Park.


This message was also posted at the Historic Washington list at Yahoogroups.

See this subsequent response on the Historic Washington list:

Date: Thu, 1 Oct 2015 09:47:26 -0400
Subject: Re: [HistoricWashington] Using US census data to learn more about a neighborhood

This is a fascinating article. Is Mari Maxwell on this list? I’d love to let her know that some famous people did indeed live in the Truxton Circle neighborhood. I’ve found two well published authors: Charles Warren Stoddard (who lived at 300 N St. NW from 1889 to 1892), and Gideon Ferebee, Jr. (who lived at 71 N St. NW in the early 2000s). For more information on these authors, you can read about them (and see pictures of the authors and their homes) at DC Writers’ Homes, a web site I co-edit with Dan Vera:

We are in the midst of preparing for our next big annual update. You can also sign up on the website and get email notifications of updates!

And see this response from author Mari Maxwell:
Date: Fri, 2 Oct 2015 05:36:41 -0700
Subject: Re: [HistoricWashington] Using US census data to learn more about a neighborhood

Yes, I am on the list.

For the article I focused on the 1880 census. I do have data for 1880, 1900-1940  anyone can see it at Connecting with your neighbors in the past,

so even if I knew of the two authors mentioned, they would not have been captured in the data sets I have. At certain levels fame is subjective. Duke Ellington is famous. He’s got a statue near the Howard Theatre. He went to Armstrong a school on P St that is currently a charter school, but he didn’t live in the TC.

The point is to learn about the common man and woman in one’s neighborhood. My own interest was to look at the racial make up of my neighborhood. This thing started many years ago at some community meeting when an old timer was complaining and giving some narrative of neighborhood history that just seemed wrong. So I went looking for facts and proof.

The census is a great place to see a snap shot of your neighborhood because some histories focus on some people and completely ignore others. The census provided evidence or at least context when saying “this was a _______ neighborhood.” Fill in the blank with ‘working class’, ‘multiracial’, ‘growing’ or what have you.

I hope that other people in urban neighborhoods where very little history has been written can use the census to connect with their neighbors from the past. Where present day residents can learn about how their neighborhood has changed since 1880.

M. Marie Maxwell

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