While filing a folder of election-related material recently, our long-time Collections Volunteer Nadine Nelson let out a small gasp (those who work closely with Nadine will recognize this exclamation). “That’s my great-uncle!”
Nadine had stumbled upon Sabastian Albertoli’s original Certificate of Registration, Number 14863 in the 1876 Great Register of Santa Clara County; essentially his voter registration document. A Swiss immigrant, Sabastian was married to Amelia (nee Solari). They lived at 26 South River Street in San Jose, where Sabastian was the innkeeper at the Swiss Hotel.
It would appear from his certificate that he was naturalized on November 2nd, 1876, the same day he was registered, just in time for the election on Tuesday, November 7th. (The race between Samuel J. Tilden and Rutherford B. Hayes just so happens to have been one of the most disputed Presidential elections in the country’s history, resulting in the Compromise of 1877 and the end of Reconstruction).
The first voter registrations in California took place in 1866 following the Registry Act, an effort to prevent voter fraud. A later law required counties to publish an index of all registered voters every two years. These lists were kept by the county clerk, eventually printed in volumes known as the Great Registers. Though most of these books have now been scanned and are searchable online through sites like Ancestry.com, History San Jose preserves the original Santa Clara County registers in its collection.
It’s easy to forget when doing research that these Great Registers aren’t inclusive. Until 1911, only men — not women — over the age of 21 were eligible to vote. An 1879 state constitutional amendment denied the vote to natives of China (repealed in 1926), and an 1894 law established a literacy requirement (no longer in effect).
That shock of recognition that Nadine experienced, and the sensation of being able to see your ancestor’s original handwriting, or view a photograph that you didn’t know existed, is an experience that we are happy to share with researchers whenever they find a tangible connection to their past through our collection.
(Want to find out more about voting in California? Check out the Secretary of State’s “Voting in California” page)