17 January 2017

Getting Started and Getting Organized

In 2006, soon after my maternal grandfather died (my grandmother having predeceased him by five years) my cousin Tamala emailed me a question: was it true that one of our ancestors had been a governor of Rhode Island?  As kids, my cousins and my brother and I all spent time during the summers with this set of grandparents in Rhode Island (although, because of age differences, not at the same time).  Our grandmother had told us all of the ancestor-governor, from whom she was descended. 

Tamala asked the question of me, in particular, because she knew that all of our grandparents’ papers, particularly family history information, had been entrusted to me.  This seemingly innocuous question forced me to face a closet full of boxes which were not just from those two grandparents, but from my father’s side of the family as well.

Many years earlier, when my father died in 1992 and we began clearing out his things, I took all the family memorabilia he left – documents, boxes with mementos, family books, etc.  These moved with me from San Francisco to Atlanta, to various apartments and homes, then finally to my current home of 19 years.  And here, for many years, they got no more attention than before, residing in a closet with office supplies and old computers!

Along the way I added to the collection: my dad’s brother, Uncle Robert, gave me some important letters, a photo album from 1901 and many other photos and documents.  For the most part, these made their way into the closet to rest as well.  I did scan the photo album at one point, thinking that there should a record of it, but I did little more.

Just a small batch of the family records I inherited.
In 2006, fourteen years after I acquired the first round of boxes from my father’s family, I added all those boxes from my maternal grandparents to the closet.  Then came the question from my cousin Tamala (she sends me family history questions out of the blue, immediately as she thinks of them – it’s wonderful because it keeps me on my toes) and I realized that I couldn’t just open a drawer or a computer file and find the answer.

Organization was in order!  I started to go through the contents of the closet and soon decided to sort the contents into several major categories of things.  I also determined not to throw anything away just yet (that would come later), even if it seemed to hold no intrinsic value.  This is how I classified the contents of the inherited boxes:
  • Family History – really anything with names and dates (clear genealogical documents – trees, charts, lineage books, narratives explaining descent, birth records, marriage certificates, etc.).
  • Photographs / Albums (this included postcards that were collected but not sent).
  • Letters, notes from one person to another and postcards that HAD been sent.
  • Journals (both bound in books and compiled on paper) – no one in my immediate family kept a journal on a regular basis, but on both sides of the family they did write up extensive narratives about journeys they took.
  • Books and publications written by or about family members (this included several Masters Theses, a Doctoral Thesis and papers written for college classes).
  • Other documents (maps, menus, articles that didn’t relate to a family member, pamphlets, tourist guides, etc.).
  • Boxes of non-paper mementos (jewelry, coins, slide rules, binoculars, pins, and all sorts of other things one could imagine).

Journals from my family
Then, each of these categories got sorted again: by grandparent.  This created five sub-categories, not the four one would expect.  I had one each for each of my four grandparents, but some of the materials were more contemporary, were related to more than one of them (or to just my parents) or couldn’t be immediately identified, so those made up a fifth grouping.   Each of the categories identified above were then divided into:

  • Woodruff
  • Bunting
  • Dirlam
  • Rowland
  • Multiples / General 

By the time I got it all sorted, I realized that the task of caring for and making the best use of all the family paraphernalia was much bigger than I had anticipated.  Originally I had taken it all on, not just to preserve it, but because I knew that some of it was important.  One day I would need to get a handle on it all.

The catalyst for this great upheaval remained my cousin Tamala’s original question: was it true that one of our ancestors had been a governor of Rhode Island?  The answer to this question would be found somewhere in the pile of Rowland genealogical information.

I boxed up and placed back in the closet (for a future day!) everything but the five stacks of genealogical information.  They took up about twice the space now that they were sorted and boxed up separately!  This left me with just those documents I had identified containing genealogical information.

While I did all that sorting, I began to develop a broader understanding of the undertaking at hand.  There was more to preserving my family documents and paraphernalia than just categorizing them and boxing them back up.  This closet full of stuff had stories to tell!  And different types of stories at that.  It was that day that I made the distinction between the family history and the family genealogy.

A few charts I have transcribed.
Broadly speaking, the family history is just that: the stories of our family, who they were, what they did, etc.  I would come to realize that their place in the context of history was of great interest.  I asked myself how the historical events of the country or the world impacted their lives and how did they, in turn, impact the world?

Before I could even think about defining that family history, though, I had to know who they all were.  That’s where the family genealogy kicks in.  The starting point to telling their story, to bringing the people in my family history to life, was to identify them, their relations to one another and their relation to me.  This meant a family tree!

My first priority was to try to draw up the genealogy as comprehensively as possible – to create the family tree from the documents I had in front of me.  Starting with one grandparent, I took all of the genealogical information and started to write it up on a big sheet of paper, drawing lines from parents to children, starting over when I ran out of space (one set of great-great-great-grandparents had twelve children!) and generally frustrating myself.

I bought a family tree program and started over, this time entering it all in my computer.  This went more smoothly and I was able to focus on one piece of paper at a time: enter all of the information, mark it as completed and then move on to the next. 

Once that branch was entered, I was able to go to the next grandparent and enter their information and so on.  It was a good start, but I started to find limitations in the program; two very specific ones: the program didn’t like it when cousins married (and in colonial New England, where much of my ancestry originated, this happened somewhat regularly) but more important, the program couldn’t print out charts or trees in a readable format – in a way that I’d like to see the information organized.

This was a good start and it allowed me to get my initial organization complete, but it wasn’t ideal.  It would take me several years to settle on a genealogical organization method that worked for me.  And it also took several years before I could start to focus on translating some of those names on the charts into their own fascinating stories.

I am slowly getting through the other stacks of family papers, and I’ll discuss that process sometime, as well as the method I finally settled on for organizing just the genealogy.  In the meantime, the ways I sorted my own family stuff may help you: by category and then by grandparent (dividing the family between grandparents has helped me immensely).  And the priority I assigned to the genealogy-related information was definitely the way to begin – it gave me the building blocks for then making the history come alive.
A draft chart showing our descent from
Caleb Carr, once governor of Rhode Island

And as to my cousin Tamala’s question? Yes, we did have a Rhode Island governor in our past: Governor Caleb Carr, our eighth-great-grandfather, was born in England, circa 1624 (he was 11 years old in 1635) arrived in 1635 on the Elizabeth and Ann with his uncle and brother and held many offices in the Rhode Island colony until May 1695, when he became governor.  He died later that year, December 17, 1695, serving a very short time in that office.  Family legend has it that he died drowning off the Newport-Jamestown Ferry (which the family owned and operated), but the legend has not been confirmed. Wikipedia, by definition citing other sources, lists his birth year as 1616, but I have chosen to use 1624 as published in The Great Migration, by Robert Charles Anderson, given the extraordinary lengths to which he went to verify the information he published.

For more information on Caleb Carr:

Anderson, Robert Charles; Sanborn Jr, George F. and Sanborn, Melinde Lutz.  The Great Migration: Immigrants to New England 1634-1635, Volume II C-F, Publ 2001 New England Historic and Genealogical Society, pp. 11-16. 
Wikipedia contributors. "Caleb Carr (governor)." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.  22 Nov. 2016. Web.   (https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Caleb_Carr_(governor)&oldid=750888037)

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