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.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Lesson Learned: Dates and why we should carefully cite those

Diaries of William Lanning Tucker (1839 - 1929)

I received another notice this weekend from FamilySearch.org that a date had been changed on my G-G-Grandfather William Lanning Tucker. Sigh.

With my Tucker family draft monograph in hand, I went to my FamilySearch Family Tree to see what exactly had been changed.  Another researcher in this family line had changed his birth year from 1839 to 1840. My monograph had his birth date as 19 September 1839. But where exactly did I get that? I have a number of citations, including his granddaughter’s “Black Diaries” and “Information taken from 1830 family bible pages,” but that was more of a general citation for William’s parents, Ezra and Caroline (Lanning) Tucker. I did not have a citation attached to William’s birth date per se.

We have been told that a citation should accompany every date. What a pain! But excellent advice since it saves time later when verifying where the date came from.

So last night I spent time going back through what my Great Grandmother, Jessie (Tucker) Agard had written from the Tucker Family Bible, where she had noted her father’s birth date as 19 September 1839 and then just to make sure I retrieved William Lanning Tucker’s diaries from the archival box.

William Lanning Tucker kept diaries from 1919 through his death in 1929. I picked three years and went to 19 September. On that date for each of the three years I randomly chose, he wrote that it was his birthday and how old he was. That brought the year of his birth back to 1839.

The confusing issue is the 1900 census that states the day and year of birth is clearly 1840.  I changed the date back to 1839 on FamilySearch, stated my sources and also wrote in that the U.S. Census for 1900 states the year 1840.

Is one year’s difference really that important? To me, no, not for that family tree. My monograph will have what I believe is his correct date of birth, and in the footnote I have already mentioned the census discrepancy.

Unfortunately, this is the same family line that was mistakenly merged with New Hampshire people. Hopefully that won’t happen again, but now I know how to reverse the information back.

This time was not wasted. It is good to have someone challenge your information. It makes you go back and double check where your information came from. In the midst of the thrill of the hunt, you (or I particularly) can make mistakes. Typos happen as you sleep, and even when you are awake. This situation also prompted me to pull out William’s diaries again. They are small books, and he doesn’t have much relevant genealogy information, but I realize I need to scan through them all for the hidden gems or births and deaths and other family activities.