Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Writing your Family History

It wasn’t until I was asked to write a 600 word newsletter article about how to write a genealogy monograph that I realized how difficult that particular assignment was going to be. There are so many details to share that I didn’t know if I could accomplish it in only 600 words. But I did!

Our genealogical society recently sent out an opinion survey asking members what topics they would like presented at future meetings. The top subject in the returns was – Writing a Family History.

The challenge is breaking down this process step-by-step so those who are uncomfortable with writing, or have absolutely no idea where to start, are given that confidence. Over the winter I’ll work on a Keynote presentation about the different forms of sharing family histories. In the meantime, here is what I wrote for our society’s newsletter:

As genealogists we know that genealogy is more than names and dates. It’s about your ancestor’s lives. It’s about family stories that might or might not be true. It’s about social history and how your ancestor was affected by what was happening around them. In your research you will discover what they did for a living, their religion, what social organizations they belonged to and even health history.

At one conference we attended the speaker urged his audience to write up their family history now. Concentrate on one ancestral line; share it with family and repositories.  We are never done, but the information you have now (carefully cited) could help others in their research. An important benefit of writing your family history is that process will quickly tell you where the holes are in your research.

A monograph is a “written account of a single thing.” A monograph is similar to writing a book - to capture the reader’s interest, start with some interesting fact, character or event. I began my Hardenbrook monograph with a photo of my great-grandmother, Laura (Wortman) Hardenbrook and a quote I remembered her saying, “I will never give up the Hardenbrook name!”
Harry and Mary Nunn

I began my Nunn monograph with an “I imagine” prologue of what my grandfather, Harry Nunn, might have felt when he learned of his sister’s death:

“He sat down and closed his eyes as flashbacks of his childhood overtook him. They had survived, most of them, because of Lizzie. The acrid smell of unwashed bodies, dirty diapers, overcooked onions and cabbage in that small crowded Manhattan tenement came back to him like it was yesterday. Eleven babies had arrived; some didn’t survive.  Despite all this Lizzie cared for them when their mother couldn’t. Harry never mentioned his childhood. He didn’t remember much about his parents, but he never forgot the day the authorities arrived.”[1]

We learn later in the monograph that the “authorities” was New York City’s Department of Public Charities Out-Door Poor. Harry and his siblings, except Lizzie, were scooped up and sent to St. Joseph’s Home in Peekskill, NY. The story is tragic and it took me nine years to uncover it.

Once your readers are hooked, you then fill in the back-story, and write about what happened to each of the family members.

I develop a descendant line, and then research each family member, adding as much social history as I can find. Where they went to church, what organizations they belonged to, their occupation, and any other interesting facts.

Writing my Hardenbrook monograph I learned about the Willard Psychiatric Hospital (originally intended to be the location of Cornell University), and the Seneca Ordnance — that land was taken by the government at the start of WWII in a similar fashion as Quantico. Writing my Nunn monograph I learned about the number of children orphaned during the late 1800s, the orphan trains, and St. Joseph’s Home. In 2010 I was able to stand on the land where my grandfather and his siblings once walked and played. Was it coincidental that our visit to Peekskill was on All Saints Day?

A table of contents will help you stay on track. When you’re done, develop an index. If this is something you don’t know how to do, find someone who can help.

If you aren’t sure about a fact or what your ancestor might have done in a situation, you can always use the words probably, or I imagine …

Good resources are Producing a Quality Family History by Patricia Law Hatcher and You Can Write Your Family History by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack.

I am happy to help anyone wanting to write a monograph and with indexing.

[1] I imagine this scenario happened when Elizabeth died 2 January 1947.  Harry (Pop) kept his growing up years carefully concealed. The passing of Elizabeth must have affected him deeply.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent advice...and your emphasis on social history is especially important, because it brings ancestors alive.