Spicing Up Your Family History with Detail, by Juliana Smith

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, One of the best ways to stir interest in your family history is to write your family story, but as Nathaniel Hawthorne once said, “Easy reading is damned hard writing.”

Isn’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. I’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 aren’t familiar with timelines, there is a step-by-step tutorial in the Ancestry Library.  

Look at Records With “New Eyes”
Once you get your basic events included in the timeline, it’s time to build on it. It’s tough to entertain an audience with “John Smith was born in 1850. In 1870 he married Jane Doe. In 1872 their first child was born . . . Z-z-z-z-z-z.”

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 you’ve already collected. You just need to look at them through “new eyes.” In other words, don’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 “other columns” 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 “coffee packer,” 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 ancestors’ 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 ancestors’ community.
  • Finances. What was that $100 of personal property worth in today’s terms? Check out EH.net (http://eh.net/hmit/) to learn more about the historical value of your ancestors’ estate values. Also, does their estate value in the census increase over time or decrease? 
  • Housing. Did they rent or own their homes? In New York, if they rented, there’s a good chance they may have taken part in the customary “moving day” on the first of May. An 1869 newspaper clipping from the “New York Herald” (http://www.ancestry.com/s23560/t10945/rd.ashx) reports that,
  • “By 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. . . .”

  • 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 “mother of how many children” and “how many living?” 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 spouse’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. Stiles’ A History of the City of Brooklyn regarding their profession:
  • “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 “New York Times” 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, you’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 you’ll find the words come much easier than you thought. Your passion and interest in the subjects will shine through and I think you’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.

9 thoughts on “Spicing Up Your Family History with Detail, by Juliana Smith

  1. Thanks for the reminder. I have tried to write my family history in this way ever since I started my search. The basic family tree form did not explain anything “about the people” and was basically “dry reading”.

  2. What finally got me writing was saying to myself “This is just a rough draft. My research isn’t finished, but I’ll just write up what I have so far.” Your timeline approach is wonderful. Also, I found much material to flesh out the lives of my English farmer ancestors online by Googling various subjects such as “Agriculture in England, 1700s”. Websites such as http://www.bbc.co.uk/history and http://www.british-history.ac.uk have some interesting info on crop yields, farming practices, population, etc. I “published” in looseleaf binder format so I can add more material or change pages.

  3. That’s a great way to think of it Pat! I think too many people are afraid to start that process until they’re “done” (I put that in quotes because “done” could mean anything from “done verifying sources” to “done researching that person” to “done with the family research” –which in my mind is hopefully never. 😉 )

    When we do that we miss out on all the opportunities that putting things in narrative format brings out. (I say we, because I’m guilty too! I have timeslines, but too few narratives.) There are so many things that jump out at you when you have to spell out your conclusions. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had breakthroughs on a family line when I try to write an article about them. (One of the perks of the job!) 😉

    “Rough draft” takes some of the pressure off and can get you going on the project!


  4. A timely article. I am struggling to write my grandmothers story. You have given me a start. Thanks

  5. I loved this article (which I must say isn’t unusual, as most of your articles seem to hit home with me). An idea I read about not long ago was to write out your information as a first person narrative (from the ancestors point of view). I’ve been working on one for my paternal grandfather and have found it to be a lot of fun.

  6. I have noticed that when the Staten Island Oystermen of the mid 1800’s were not working it probably was in the months when Oysters R not in season..i.e.months without “R” in the name, the summer months. An interesting reason for unemployment, dont you think.

  7. This article has inspired me to send briefs to my daughter by email and make them interesting by adding the facts you suggested. I’m now in DAR and our daughter is not interested in the family history AS OF YET.

  8. I always enjoy your newsletters. It seems there is always someting very useful in them. I especially enjoyed this one because I have just written a narrative for a family member. The ancestors were from Mecklenburg, Germany and I was able to learn the sad history of that area in the 1800s. Knowing their history helped to get just a glimpse of what they experienced. Not only that, but as the story unfolded, there were several “ah ha” moments that jumped out at me, sending me back to check dates and places and in some cases, confirming “facts” I had considered conjecture previously – light bulb moments, so to speak. I am thoroughly sold on the idea of writing the narrative and also the timeline that you mentioned. Thank you so much.

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