Sunday, June 10, 2012

Writing a Family History

I am by no mean a professional or even skilled writer. I do my best but mostly, what I write, including this blog, is for my own personal enjoyment and if you think it's crap, well, you could very well be correct.

Nonetheless, I have painstakingly and lovingly written family histories for each branch in my tree and continue to amend them and build on them. I can't tell you how to be a great writer but I can tell you how I organized and broke down my own family tree into stories and some of things I've included in them to flesh them out a bit.

First, I broke each "chapter" down by surname. So each chapter is dedicated to a surname and once that name gets "daughtered out", I make a note to refer to the family history of the name she married into. There is occasionally some overlap and I had a nightmare with Norwegian patronymic names but I've succeeded in mostly dividing each woman's story up by pre-marriage and post-marriage. This is generally easy since there is sadly often not much to say about women, especially before marriage, because there is much less documentation on them. And because of this, there is often not enough information on a certain surname to compile a worthwhile story. In some cases, I have only a woman's maiden name and nothing more or sometimes I'll have her parents names too but not enough information on them to write something. In cases like this, I won't create an dedicated chapter for them but merely mention them in the chapter of the family she married into. If I later find more documentation on this family, I'll give them their own story. In rare cases, when a lineage was daughtered out immediately too many times, I lumped them altogether in one chapter.

So each family history begins with the oldest generation I have discovered for the family and works its way forward in time until it gets daughtered out or reaches current time. This means whenever I find another, older generation, I have amend my story to include them. But I just feel it makes more sense to work chronologically forward.

But first, I start each chapter by giving an explanation about the history, origins, and meanings of the family name. For this, I mostly use's surname look up. Since they have changed the design of their website slightly, I haven't been able to easily find this little tool without Googling it so it's a bit of a hidden feature but it's been invaluable to me and therefore I've bookmarked it. Not only does it give me the origins and meaning of a family name but also a bunch of stats on things like immigration and regional settlements associated with this name. All facts I can use to flesh out my family history in the introduction. I will also use this space to mention any alternate spellings.

Next, comes the hard part: actually writing your ancestor's story. At first, it may seem like you don't have enough information to write anything significant or substantial about your ancestors. You may have their vital data and some census records but how do you make that into a story? At the same time, you may also feel overwhelmed. Where to start? My family histories have absolutely been a gradual evolution - I started with the bare bone facts and vital data. Starting with the oldest person in a branch, I wrote down his name, when and where he was born, who he married and when and where, then listed his children's names, his occupation and finally when and where he died plus when and where his wife died and where they are buried. If I didn't know a piece of this info, I simply said so. Then it was on to do the same thing with the next generation. Over time, once I had the basic timeline of the family down, I just gradually added more and more detailed information and I still am today!

Once you have the bare bone facts down, you have to look at all the details and analyze what they really mean. Don't just state when and where someone was born, married, and died anymore - look at their age, how old were they when they got married in comparison to how old their spouse was? How old were they when they died? How old were their children when they died? Did any of their parents outlive them? What impact may this have had on the family? Sometimes, you can only speculate but this is what really makes family history so interesting.

Here's some other details to look at and consider:
  • How old was each mother when she first and last gave birth? Sometimes, this might surprise you. I have found many woman who gave birth to surviving children well into their 40s and sometimes even their early 50s! It may also be noteworthy to mention the age of the father too, though it's less impressive for a man to father a child in his 50's than it is for a woman to give birth at that age.
  • Did any children in the family died young or in infancy? How many and how old were they? Though not an uncommon occurrence in history, reflect on what it must have been like.
  • Names: who was named after who? What does this tell you about the family and their relationships? In one of my branches, a young woman named Jessie died in her early 20's before she was married. A year later, her brother (my ancestor) named his son Jesse after her and two years after that, her sister named her daughter Jessie too. For not just one but two members of the family to name a child after the same sister tells me that this young woman was obviously a much loved and cherished member of her family and they must have grieved her death greatly. These are the kind of clues you can pick up from something as simple as namesakes.
  • This brings me to the point of being sure to research your ancestor's siblings, nieces, and nephews thoroughly too. Just because you did not descend from them does not mean they are not worth examination. They were a part of your ancestor's lives and can often give you important information about the family and therefore, your ancestors.
  • Where did your ancestors live? Did they stick in one place, did they move around a lot? Keep in mind, especially earlier in history, that borders and names of places can change and that it may not have necessarily meant that your ancestors moved. Include a note of any location name changes.
  • Where were your ancestors buried? If local, get a picture of the gravestone. Did they leave a will? What did it say? What can you infer from what it entailed and what was given to whom?
  • Go over census records with a fine-toothed comb. Later census records have a ton of details, all of which can be used to tell your ancestor's stories. Earlier records don't have as much information but are still invaluable to telling your stories. Here's some things you can use from them, keeping in mind not all are available from all census years:
    • Get specific addresses when you can, look them up, see if they've been knocked down, explain where exactly the address was located. If the building is still standing, get a picture.
    • Who was living together? Was it just dad, mom, and kids or was there a grandparent living with them in their old age? Any adult siblings or even cousins? Lodgers/boarders? Maids? Whoever they were, be sure to mention them. Even if they were not related or if you have no idea who they were (early censuses didn't list relationships), they were a part of your ancestor's lives. Speculate on why they might have been living there.
    • Number of years married. This is only found on later censuses and it's only approximate but it's a good substitute if you can't find any other records of your ancestor's marriage.
    • Mother of how many children and how many living. Again, only on later censuses but this is important for getting a total count of how many kids your ancestor's had. If a child died before the age of 10, they would not be recorded on any census so it can be easy to miss them.
    • Place of parent's birth. This can be inaccurate but if many censuses say the same thing, it can be useful when you have not yet found the names of an ancestor's parents. This will at least tell you where the family was a generation ago. So you can start off your story by saying something like "John Smith was born in Pennsylvania on May 3, 1818. His parents are yet unknown but they were also both born in Pennsylvania which means this family might have immigrated during colonial times." Again, don't just list where someone was born, think about what it means.
    • Citizenship. If your ancestor immigrated but you don't know when, this will give you an idea (it's not always accurate) and also whether they've naturalized or not. All important information to be added to your story. Also, once you have the immigration year narrowed down, you may be able to find some other immigration records too.
    • Occupation. This is an obvious one, not one that most people overlook when viewing census records. But what can do you with this information aside from mention it? For starters, look at the occupation from each and every census year. Some people spend their own lives in one industry but others jump around or grow and mature in their field. I have one ancestor who was first a tile setter, then a boilermaker, then graduated to a treasurer/secretary of a boiler manufacturing company. It's worthwhile to note changes and evolutions like this. Additionally, get more details on what the occupation entailed. Some might seem obvious or self explanatory but sometimes you can find and add interesting details anyway.
    • Months not employed/whether employed or out of work. This can be found in various later censuses worded very differently which means it's often overlooked. Depending on how it's worded, it tells you either whether your ancestor was out of work at any point in the last year or whether they were currently out of work. This can be crucial to your ancestor's story, especially during the 1930 and 1940 censuses when the Great Depression kept a lot of people out of work. 
    • Veteran status. This may not tell you much that you can use in your story but it will tell you whether or not to look for military records which, if found, can then give you a lot to add.
    • Education. Up until 1940, this mainly just told you whether the individual was literate and whether they attended school in the last year. Worthwhile but limited info. In 1940, we now get to see the highest level of school completed for every individual. This can be very interesting and definitely should be included in your story.
    • Home Data. On later censuses, this will tell you whether your ancestor's home was rented or owned and what the value of the property was or how much they rented it for. All worth mentioning in your story. Earlier censuses will only tell you the value of the real estates and personal estate but this is still useful. Also important is comparing the numbers from all census years. While keeping inflation in mind, how did the value of your ancestor's property change over time? What does this tell you about them?
  • If your censuses don't tell you a whole lot, look for tax records. They can go pretty far back in history and often provide more details than the census. For example, the 1840 and earlier censuses tell us virtually nothing but an 1840 (or there about) tax record might tell you the acreage and value of any buildings or structures on the land as well as the amount and value of livestock. If you can find more than one tax record over the years, compare two of them and talk about how the family's situation improved or declined and why that may have happened.
Course there are many other details you may be able to include from other sources you've collected. This just gives you an idea of what to look at and how to extract more information from it. The key is to look at what the facts mean, not just list the facts themselves.

Also a crucial way to flesh out your ancestor's story is to do research on local and worldly events going on around them. How did all the different wars influence them, even if they were not in the military? How did the Great Depression effect them? Look for lesser known or more regional events too. When I found an uncle who owned stock in the Blue Mountain Railroad company, I launched into the history of the company, including the Great Railroad Strikes of 1877, caused by the collapse of the silver mining industry, now known as the Panic of 1873. In another family, I noted that having lived close to the rivers in Pittsburgh, their home may have received water damage from a flood that occurred there in 1907. In another family, though none of them joined the Civil War, they were living in the important border state of Kentucky, just outside of Hopkinsville. I brushed up on Hopkinsville's involvement in the Civil War and related how it might have influenced my family.

You should also read up on the everyday lives of people in different time periods and locations to understand the world they lived in; what was normal, what wasn't, how people lived, what their customs were, etc. It may not tell you exactly what happened in your ancestor's lives but it will give you a good impression of what typical life was like for someone at that time and then you can apply some of that to your ancestor's story. For example, if you find a woman who died in childbirth, you could mention that in the 19th century (and earlier) childbirth was the number one leading cause of death among women of childbearing age. Just one of the many little factoids you can weave into your family histories.

Once you start working your way forward in time, you can also incorporate any personal information you've gotten from living family members. Interview the oldest people in your family, ask them about their parents and grandparents and what their personalities were like. Though you're limited by how far back this can go, it will add a more personal and human touch to the story.

I think that about covers it. While some branches will have a wealth of information to use and others will be lacking, with all of these ideas, you should be able to build something substantial enough to make it worth writing and reading. Good luck and have fun!