Archives, artifacts and information

Published 2:06 pm Wednesday, August 13, 2003

By By LYDIA GRIMES, Feature reporter
Last week I told you about some new material that I have received from the Alabama Department of Archives and History. I knew that I would have to continue this week with some additional information. It occurred to me that some of you may not know much about the place and what it contains.
The Archives is a large white building set on the street that goes by the capital building in Montgomery. At the present time they are renovating and building a new addition in order to house all the materials they have.
Historians and genealogists can have a field day there. Some of the historical records, books, censuses and genealogical records that are located there can not be found in any other place. Their on-line site is adding new material every day and this year they are adding a new feature that they call an Online Catalog that will help the researcher find what they are looking for.
Historians can find any number of exhibits that show the history of our state and the people who live or have lived here. Sometimes there are collections that don't have a lot to do with local history. One of those is the Edward Harris Collection that features artifacts from western Indians. Mr. Harris was a lifelong friend of John James Audubon and the two traveled extensively, including a trip through the Montgomery-Mobile area. On one such trip to Fort Union, which was located near the Yellowstone/Missouri Rivers, Mr. Harris obtained several items that are unequaled in their rarity. One of these items was a Blackfoot shirt made from the skin of an antelope and decorated with porcupine quills and scalp locks of enemies slain in battle.
These items were passed down to son and then his grandson, William Ustick Harris, who moved to Mobile in the early 1900s and later became district manager for Alabama Power Company at Jackson, Clarke County. He tried to sell the collection during the depression and when the curator of the museum found out about it he intervened through a friend. Harris donated not only the Western Plains Collection but a lot of other family material that had come down to him. This collection has become world known and individuals come from all over the world to see it . Some of the items will be on display for the Lewis and Clark Exhibition and one item will be lent to the Library of Congress for their Lewis and Clark exhibit.
One thing that is happening at the archives is the database of Civil War servicemen. Before this one had to search through reels of microfilm service cards to find information on Civil War veterans. Since February 2000, volunteers have been entering information from these cards into a database. As a letter for a surname is completed it is posted on the Archives' web site,
Currently A through I surnames are available to anyone who has access to an internet connection. There are about 250,000 cards in all and over 93,000 have been entered. Over the next few years the other 157,000 cards will be entered and checked. At the current rate of entry, it will take about five more years to complete. Volunteers are always needed and this might be something to think about. It only takes time and minimal typing skills.
I will keep you up to date on things happening at the Archives. They have promised to send regular updates and I will pass them along when I receive them.