Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXII, No. 31
Wednesday, July 30, 2008
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A Passion for Genealogy Inspires Princeton Librarian’s Seminars on the Past

Ellen Gilbert

“My grandmother was the family historian, so I grew up listening to family history. I’m so sorry that she’s not around to know what I’ve found out,” observed Princeton Public Library’s Special Collections Librarian Terri Nelson recently. What she’s “found out” is pretty awesome: her family’s roots can be traced back to the Starbucks (the family, not the coffee shop) on Nantucket Island.

More locally, Ms. Nelson’s passion for genealogy finds an outlet in her work at the Princeton Public Library, where she teaches classes to budding genealogists as well as meeting with them on a one-to-one basis. She also oversees the New Jersey Room, staffs the reference desk, and has prepared a wealth of online resources on Princeton history and African American history (including a site devoted solely to Paul Robeson), all available through the Library’s website at

Ms. Nelson, who has worked at the Library for almost 20 years (“the longest I’ve ever been anywhere”), says that she “adores” teaching. She described her students as “anyone and everyone,” including, at one point, two Mayflower descendants. She led the first of two “Genealogy 101” classes last Sunday afternoon in the Library’s second floor technology center. The class is advertised as being “for people just beginning to research their families,” who will “learn how to collect family information informally, organize what you know and identify the gaps in your information.” The second class will be held this coming Sunday at 3 p.m., and is open to anyone, including those who did not attend the first session.

Although her subject is history, Ms. Nelson is thoroughly steeped in modern technology. Her hands move quickly around a computer keyboard as she brings up an astonishing array of sources, many of them primary documents that were not available to most people in the pre-internet era.

Genealogy classes and discussions led by Ms. Nelson, who previously worked in academic libraries in California, Ohio, and Manhattan, are not limited to the library. She has participated in programs at the Princeton Historical Society, and she recently gave a talk on “tracing your family history” in conjunction with a viewing of the PBS video African American Lives 2 at the Suzanne Patterson Center.

Princeton’s African American history is particularly dear to Ms. Nelson’s heart. In a recent conversation she talked about “how well-connected and savvy our nineteenth-century African American community was.” Describing it as a “segregated community in a small village,” she noted the examples of Betsey Stockton, a slave freed by the College president, who became the first female missionary of color to Hawaii in 1832, and Cecelia Van Tyne, who went to Setra Kroo, Africa as a missionary in 1841. “Both women came home to educate Princeton’s African American children,” observed Ms. Nelson. “Between 70 and 80 black men fought in the Civil War, and 22 black sailors in the Union navy were born in Princeton,” she noted, adding that “the community’s regard for God and humanity and its awareness of the issues of the day in regard to race, rights, education, suffrage, etc. seem to me the two most important characteristics of our nineteenth-century African American population.”

While the Indiana-born Ms. Nelson has cast a wide net in identifying census records, birth and death certificates, marriage and divorce records, church records, newspapers, military records, and a wealth of ephemera to aid genealogical researchers, she points out that “since many of my family lines go back to the 1600s, I’ve simplified my work by not crossing the Atlantic. My skills are in U.S. genealogy. When I help people with families outside the U.S., we have to learn together. I’m a working example of how libraries foster lifelong learning.”

Princeton Ancestors

On a related note, Princeton 1783 Committee member Herb Hobler would like to track down current residents who are related to early residents of Princeton. Mr. Hobler asks people to contact him “if you are, or know someone who had ancestors living in Princeton in 1783, whether a student, temporary resident, or slave.” Mr. Hobler’s phone number is (609) 921-3800.

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