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Add Context to Your Family History Research

How to share family stories in a way that will keep them relevant for generations to come.

Though the stories of our ancestors fascinate us, their cultural influence fades with each successive generation. So why does who we are and where we came from continue to be a subject of interest?

In this post, I’ll discuss how to share family stories, journals, or letters from any era, and focus on ways to give the stories depth and context so future generations will understand more about the people whose stories have been preserved.

Maybe you’re interested in sharing letters exchanged during World War II or a farmer’s journal from the nineteenth century—or even a story or experience from your own memory.

Our world is changing so fast that even stories from ten or twenty years ago begin to lose context as technology and society evolve. If things keep pace, future generations will benefit from your insights as you share what life was like for you or your ancestors.

There are many ways to share family stories. I’ve created a “Who Do You Think You Are?” style book for my parents’ 50th anniversary, and published books in both the memoir and nonfiction formats. My current work in progress is historical fiction, based on family lore and starring my 6x great grandparents.

Memoir and nonfiction focus on the facts. It’s great fun to dig into the research and report what you learn.

Historical fiction allows you more creativity, but if anything, you must do more research to develop your ancestors into compelling characters.

CONTEXT

Whether we’re reading fiction or nonfiction, we sometimes need additional information to fully understand a story set in another place and time. This is true anytime we’re confronted with something unfamiliar in our sphere.

For example, our daughter spent her childhood traveling to various historic parks with her dad’s vintage base ball team. Her dress-up clothes included historically accurate outfits from the mid-19th century. She watched Civil War re-enactments, drank sarsaparilla, and took horse and carriage rides.

Even though she was still in preschool, I thought we were doing a great job of exposing her to what it was like to live in another time. When we went to Slate Run, a working 19th-century farm that’s part of Columbus Metro Parks, she pointed at the outhouse and asked, “Is that where the horses and cows go potty?”

And how about this story from my dad’s childhood: “I remember when we got our first television. It was a big deal! But my dad owed some people money, and he didn’t want them to know he’d spent it on a tv, so he set up the antenna inside the attic.”

What context clues would you need to give a child so they’d understand the story?

The larger events in American history seem more personal if you know your ancestor’s role in the event, or how it affected them, their family, and their community.

THEME


Whatever the focus of your project, I urge you to write the story as a narrative in which you describe your research and conclusions. It gives you a chance to talk directly to the reader, express your joys and frustrations, and share how you went through the research process.

Then it becomes your story as well as the story of your ancestors.

Is it about an event? Your ancestor’s travels? A family business? Letters sent home by someone serving in the military?

In any case, you don’t need to travel or have a big budget, and you can derive great satisfaction from exploring your family history.

How you assemble, resolve, and share what you discover is up to you.

 VOICE

A person’s speech patterns and grammar can give clues to when and where they lived and how much education they had. Voice is found in a person’s writing, too—especially in their correspondence. The expressions and slang of the past are very different from ours, just as one day our descendants will think our slang is quaint and outdated.

It’s important to preserve your subject’s voice by reproducing their letters as written. Don’t change spelling or punctuation. If necessary, add context clues as sidebars or footnotes to help readers understand what was meant.

In the past, letters, especially those sent home from war, were treasured keepsakes. Now we dash off a quick text or email that’s just as quickly read and deleted.

Now, our life stories will be accessible on our Facebook profiles.

Let’s take a look at letters written in 1865 by two Ohio Civil War soldiers, Sluman Abel of Portage County, and Wallace Chadwick of Hamilton County.

Letter written by Sluman Abel, aged 23

Ohio 39th Volunteer Infantry

Columbus April 9 1865

Dear Brother and Sister I take my pen in hand to let you know how we prisoners are a-getting a long we are all well and enjoy our Selves well I suppose it is Sunday in old portage it is fourth of July here The Band is a-playing and so are the conscripts we have our Rations cooked both and served in slop pails by the Sambos we have a plenty of bread and meat and coffe but no milk or butter Sambo sais Uncle Sam’s cows haint come in yet we are in Foul[?] Barracks there is some two thousand boys here they is some two hundred drawing their rations to leave to day We leave to morrow at half past two in the after noon for unknown but we think that we are a going to Tennissee

I am glad of it any place but this I have wore a hole through my bunk with my hip bones I am all right the Surgen stuck a awl in my arm yesterday morning I feel better than when I left home good bye don’t write untill you hear from me give my respects to all your soger Boy

Sluman W. Abel

Letter written by Wallace William Chadwick, aged 29

138th Ohio Volunteer Infantry

 North Mountain, May 19, 1864

Dear Wife,

 Our situation might be a more pleasant one than it is, but I do not know that it is critical. We are stationed about a mile northwest of North Mountain station. Sigel had a battle at New Market on Sunday and I understand was repulsed. His wounded have been going west which, I take, is a good omen as regards defeat, for if he was badly whipped he couldn’t take care of the wounded.

We are near the above-named station on the line of march of Bank’s retreat. His main force retreated by Martinsburg, which is seven miles from here. Martinsburg is twenty-five miles from Winchester, and Winchester forty miles from New Market. There are five or six regiments near us, but we are not as well off for ammunition as I would like and could do but little fighting.

A large train of wounded passed here this morning which proves conclusively to me that Sigel’s line of communication is all right. There is a rumor in camp that Sigel turned on them and whipped them, which is his style of fighting, but as you get the papers you are better posted on the successes and reverses of our armies than we are, and I hope you will give yourself no uneasiness. The boys from our neighborhood are all well. We have our pickets out, but everything is in the dark yet. All are in the best of spirits. I feel myself as good as any one rebel and I hope all the boys feel the same way. We feel no alarm, but things look like war.

 Write often and I will do the same. My love to yourself and the babies and compliments to all inquiring friends.

Wallace

What can we discern about the two men’s lives and circumstances from these letters?

Chadwick is writing to his wife, and his letters may have a more personal tone than Abel’s, which is written to his sister and brother-in-law.

Chadwick appears more eloquent, and his perfect spelling suggests he was much better educated. We could also assume he was rich, while Abel was of more humble origins.

But we can’t be sure.

Here’s an important difference between the two letters. I transcribed Abel’s original letter without changing his spelling or fixing punctuation, but I have no way to know whether Chadwick’s letter had been edited. Some well-meaning descendant might have “fixed” the spelling and grammar while transcribing the letter.

If you have original letters or other handwritten documents, resist the urge to edit spelling. It’s better to put notes or explanations in brackets. […]

It can be tricky to decipher old handwriting. Use the process of elimination. Find a word you recognize and take a look at the strokes of each letter. Sometimes it helps to trace a word with your finger.

RESEARCH

How to you add context to your story?

Talk to the person who wrote the letter or journal, if you can. Elderly relatives may have very clear recollections of the events you’re interested in, and then again, they may not. You might want to record your interviews.

Google is your friend!

There are millions of documents and images that can be included in your project.

If you prefer doing your research in the real world, local historical societies are always willing to help. They love to talk about history, too!

If your story is recent, you might do an online search for news stories or articles.

Start with your personal knowledge.

Check public records.

Cluster details—when searching census records, examine a few pages before and after the entry for your ancestor. You may find clues to other relatives and family connections that may be close neighbors.

When you spot a clue, follow it. It will likely lead to more information.

Once you know where your ancestors lived, take note of what was going on in their community.

For instance, Mt. Healthy was a hotbed of abolitionist activity, from the 1840s onward. My ancestors owned a mill just north of town, but I had no evidence that they’d been involved in the Underground Railroad. That is, until I began researching Henry’s brothers-in-law.

Henry Rogers, my 3x great grandfather, had seven sisters. When I was writing Pride of the Valley, I did a search for each of their husbands.

I decided to start with Zebulon Strong, Hannah Rogers’s husband. The Google search came back with “abolitionist/conductor on UGRR.” Zebulon, and his son Elon, transported many escaped slaves north along Hamilton Avenue, past Henry’s mill.

That led me to search for, and find, three other family connections to known abolitionists who were involved in Underground Railroad activity in Mt. Healthy. This, in turn, led me to speculate that Henry and Wilson were aware of, and complicit in, the family’s abolitionist activities, even though they were not as open about it.

When I found the records from the sale of the mill, and learned it was in financial trouble, I checked a rainfall table for Hamilton County in the 1800s to determine that drought had been a factor in the mill’s struggles.

It was common for people to name children after relatives, so when you see an unusual name, make an effort to determine its origin.

Henry and Rachel Rogers named their only son Wilson Thompson Rogers.

Shouldn’t he have been Henry, Jr.? Several of Henry’s sisters named sons for their father, Henry, Sr., and it seems as though Henry might have also done so.

It didn’t take long to determine, through a pamphlet published to celebrate the anniversary of the founding of Mt. Healthy, that Wilson Thompson had been a Baptist circuit rider who served the community.

Next, I jumped on Ancestry.com and searched for Wilson Thompson, estimating his birth year, and once I’d found him, I also did a Google search.

I learned that Brother Thompson became an influential preacher after a catastrophic earthquake in Missouri in 1822. He converted hundreds of people who had just lived through one of the most bizarre natural disasters in our country’s history.

I found his autobiography on a Baptist website. One of the appendices was “Eulogy for my Friend”—and that friend was my 4x great grandfather, Jediah Hill. I got a front-row seat at his funeral. 1859. It was an unexpected and valuable find, which I wouldn’t have discovered if I hadn’t been curious about the origin of Wilson Rogers’ name.

Community histories can omit information, people can misunderstand, and false information, once perpetuated, is hard to refute. Be aware of the discrepancies you encounter in your ancestors’ stories, and work backward to the oldest sources, which may have been given by someone with firsthand knowledge of the subject matter, rather than by a grandchild who may not have given accurate information.

 

So what happens when your research serves to burst your bubble?

 It’s always an adventure. Sometimes it’s frustrating, or upsetting, when you find out a cherished family story could have been manufactured.

Then you could choose to write historical fiction. Muster roll records for my 6x great grandfather, Benjamin Stone, no longer exist, and the records of his service in the South Carolina militia are inconclusive. Family lore, however, states he served in the Continental Army. Even though I can’t prove it with documentation, I can take he and his wife, Anna Asbury Stone, and spin an exciting tale that uses the family stories as a framework.

Will inventories can give you clues as to what possessions and livestock an individual had, and what was common in a household during a particular time period.

Township Maps show landowners’ names. You can discover the neighbors and relatives with whom your ancestor likely interacted.

Check census and voting lists a few pages before and after your ancestor. You may find other family members or friends they mentioned who lived nearby.

The more you learn about your ancestors’ day-to-day lives, the easier it is to imagine yourself in their situation.

NOTE: If you are interested in doing a genealogy/memory book like the one I displayed at the talk, please visit https://www.mycanvas.com/products/family-history-books/ for instructions and ordering details.

 This service was previously available through Ancestry.com, and is now at MyCanvas.com.

 

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