Isnâ€™t that the truth? Seeking out well-hidden records, deciphering hideous handwriting and faded ink, and making sure each fact is documented, often pales in comparison to the challenges of putting the facts into a narrative format. But if we want to really tell the family story, we have to do just that. This week, I thought we could look at some ways to make that process a bit less daunting by pulling interesting tidbits from the records we have found.
Start With an Outline
The hardest part of writing this column is getting started, so I typically begin with an outline. In the case of your family history the focus would likely be a person or family group and your outline can start out very basic. Timelines are a great place to start. Iâ€™ve created timelines for most of my family lines and not only are they helpful in beginning narratives, but they are also eye-openers when it comes to spotting inconsistencies as well as new avenues to research. For those of you who arenâ€™t familiar with timelines, there is a step-by-step tutorial in the Ancestry Library.Â Â
Look at Records With â€œNew Eyesâ€
Once you get your basic events included in the timeline, itâ€™s time to build on it. Itâ€™s tough to entertain an audience with â€œJohn Smith was born in 1850. In 1870 he married Jane Doe. In 1872 their first child was born . . . Z-z-z-z-z-z.â€
Sorry, I dozed off there for a second, but you get the picture. So how do we liven up this family story? We want to look for little tidbits that will make it more interesting. Reading historical accounts of the times in newspapers, local histories, or historical books is always a plus.
Beyond the history books and newspapers you may find a lot of interesting items in the records youâ€™ve already collected. You just need to look at them through â€œnew eyes.â€ In other words, donâ€™t look at just the names and dates–look beyond that to what those names and dates mean. How old was a couple when they got married? When they had their first child? Their last child? Did a parent die while the children were still young? How old were the children when they first show up in a city directory or census with an occupation listed?
Post-1850 censuses are wonderful tools for adding detail. Look at all those â€œother columnsâ€ and think about what they meant to the family. For example, censuses taken between 1880 and 1910 in the U.S. include questions regarding employment status, asking for the number of weeks or months unemployed. The 1930 census includes a question about whether they were actually working at the time of the census.
In 1880, my great-great-grandfather, Thomas Howley, was a gas-pipe maker and the census lists him as having been out of work for three months that year. My great-grandmother, age seventeen, and her younger sister, age fifteen, are enumerated with the occupation of â€œcoffee packer,â€ presumably helping the family through some lean times.
Other things to look at:
- Schooling, literacy, and language skills. What impact would these have had on the family? Which generation was the first to receive a formal education? Or even to learn to read and write?
- Community. Was the community predominantly from one ethnic group? Were your ancestorsâ€™ neighbors laborers, artisans, or professionals? In what range did personal property and real estate average in the neighborhood? Did most rent or own their homes? Were most farmers? Look to local histories for more information on your ancestorsâ€™ community.
- Finances. What was that $100 of personal property worth in todayâ€™s terms? Check out EH.net (http://eh.net/hmit/) to learn more about the historical value of your ancestorsâ€™ estate values. Also, does their estate value in the census increase over time or decrease?Â
- Housing. Did they rent or own their homes? In New York, if they rented, thereâ€™s a good chance they may have taken part in the customary â€œmoving dayâ€ on the first of May. An 1869 newspaper clipping from the â€œNew York Heraldâ€ (http://www.ancestry.com/s23560/t10945/rd.ashx) reports that,
- Health. Was anyone in the house disabled or bedridden? In addition to the tidbits found in censuses, also look at death certificates. What causes of death are listed? Were there prolonged illnesses and how would this have affected the family? Was the main breadwinner ill for an extended period?
- Births. The 1900 and 1910 censuses ask â€œmother of how many childrenâ€ and â€œhow many living?â€ Look at birth dates in relationship to other events. Was a mother pregnant during tough times (e.g., during a family death or illness, a spouseâ€™s unemployment spell, a severe storm or difficult winter/summer)?
- The Commute. City directories will often list both business and home addresses. Plot these on a map and see how far your ancestor had to commute to work each day. Were there any hazards along the way? I have several ancestors in Brooklyn who were in the milk business and I found the following excerpt from Henry R. Stilesâ€™ A History of the City of BrooklynÂ regarding their profession:
â€œBy law all tenancies the term of which is not fixed by a written lease expire on the first day of May. It is on this day, or to begin with it, that the scale of rents is fixed for the year ending with the next 1st of May. Every year for the last twenty, we may say, landlords have insisted upon an increased rental for their houses from the tenants, and give them the option to remain and pay the increased rent or move on the first of May. . . .”
“On the west, or river side of the road [later became Furman street], we notice next beyond Jonathan Thompson’s stores, at about the foot of the present Orange street, a dock (Map B, 29) known as the Milkmen’s dock. Here, every morning, ‘rain or shine,’ came the vendors of ‘lacteal fluid,’ stabled their horses in a row of sheds erected for the purpose, under the shelter of the Heights; and, clubbing together in the hire of boats, were rowed with their milk-cans over to New York, encountering, not infrequently, during the severe winter months, much suffering and even serious danger from fierce winds, and floating ice. Their cans were suspended from yokes across their shoulders, and thus accoutered they peddled off their milk in the city and returned in the afternoon, wind and weather permitting, to the Brooklyn side where they ‘hitched up’ their teams and started for their homes.”
Look at the Big Picture
The above tidbits are just the tip of the iceberg. As you examine your family records, you will likely find even more. As you uncover these interesting new items, add them to your timeline. Read historical newspapers and find out what was happening on a larger scale.
As my great-great-grandparents, William Dennis and Catherine Huggins, were getting married on 11 April 1865, the headlines of the â€œNew York Timesâ€ told of “The Rejoicing,” and “New York City Preparing to Welcome Peace” after the long and bloody Civil War. The “Times” article further reveals that, “The rain fell heavily during the day.” I can imagine William and Catherine running into St. Paul’s Roman Catholic Church in Brooklyn surrounded by happy family and friends. As you add more notes to your outline, youâ€™ll find overlapping items that will make your story all the more compelling.
The Writing Part
Once you have filled in an extensive outline, arrange the items in a way that makes your story flow. When this is done, I think youâ€™ll find the words come much easier than you thought. Your passion and interest in the subjects will shine through and I think youâ€™ll find that you know more about these people than you realized.
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Juliana Smith has been an editor of Ancestry newsletters for more than eight years and is author of The Ancestry Family Historian’s Address Book. She has written for Ancestry Magazine and wrote the “Computers and Technology” chapter in The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy, rev. 3rd edition. Juliana can be reached by e-mail at Juliana@Ancestry.com, but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.
Image from the Library of Congress Photo Collection at Ancestry.
- New York City – rich and poor; or, the two Christmas dinners – a scene in Washington Market, sketched from real life. Illus. in: Frank Leslie’s illustrated newspaper, v. 35, 1873 Jan. 4, p. 265.