05 February 2017

Where to Begin? At Home!

The television ads make it seem easy: enter your name and information, then that of your parents and grandparents.  By then you’ll have found a link to someone else’s family tree to which you can connect and have your genealogy laid out in front of you!  That can happen to a limited extent, but generally there’s a whole lot more work involved.  The family tree service provided by Ancestry.com is invaluable and it is definitely one important early step in getting your history organized.  But it’s not the first step.  To begin properly, you need to start at home.

There are sources of family history and genealogical information all around us, but we don’t necessarily recognize or make use of these resources.  As a quick reminder, I define “family history” as the family narrative (anecdotes, legends and stories) and “genealogy” as my lineage (who descends from whom).

John Baxter Black II in 2007
John's two volume book:
A History of 

The Family of Frank Blymyer Black
In 1996 I was given a copy of a family history that was written and self-published by a second cousin once removed by the name of John Black.  He was 72 years old at the time and I knew of him through other family members, but we had not yet met.  I wrote, asking for a copy of the book and invoked the name of my grandfather, whom John had known since childhood.  John sent me the book and we carried out a written correspondence for several years before I finally met him in person.  John became a strong influence in my life, both personally and from a genealogy standpoint.  John was the family historian for his side of the family and he and I found our love of family history and the stories associated with that history to be a great factor in our strong friendship.  We remained close friends, despite the forty-year difference in our ages, until his death at the age of 90, in 2014.  

As I mentioned in a past post, John’s family history, which covers one-eighth of my own history, was a great introduction to the concept that caused me to make the distinction between family history and genealogy.  His stories were fascinating!  They brought ancestors to life by describing their personalities, their quirks, their actions and the reactions to them by others.  In short, he made them people of interest rather than simply names with life event dates listed next to them.

In order to tell the stories that brought these people to life, John made use of many different resources – resources that are available to many of us trying to bring some sense of interest and vibrancy to our own family stories.

Jessie Baxter Black in 1929
My great-grandmother's sister
and John Black's first inspiration
for documenting family history
He had one advantage that many of us do not: he assiduously kept a journal of his observations and the events of his life starting in 1936 when he was just twelve years old.   Then, in 1940 when his grandmother, Jessie Baxter Black (my great-grandmother’s sister) died, a sixteen year old John Black sat down and wrote everything he could remember about his grandmother, including family stories she had told him over the years.  Even at that young age, he realized that besides the loss of a beloved family member, her knowledge of the family history was lost as well.  His eulogy to her was to write down all he could remember of her and what she had told him about her life and the family.  These notes he added to his journals, which he maintained until 2014, the year of his death.[i]

Besides John’s written family history as a source for information, his book gives us ideas of two potential sources for material: journals or notes we might have kept ourselves or that we have from others in the family; and the relatives around us who may have stories to tell. 

Most people don’t keep a journal these days, but many of us do sit down to write up notes when we face a significant life event.  With the loss of a close relative, we may write up our thoughts and recollections of the most significant times we spent with them.  Many people also keep notes about trips they take, visits with elderly relations, the birth of a child or that child’s graduation from high school.  Further, most of us keep a record (written or electronic) of our daily events – work and personal – in some form or another. 

And even if we don’t have access to journals, most of us do have the other resource mentioned above: family members and friends with their own recollections.  We have more information available to us than we often realize.  When I began my own family history journey, I started with those resources that I already had at hand.  Having long been the one who collected family documents for preservation (and having long piled them haphazardly in a closet over the years), I had all sorts of source documents:
A small sample of family
documents in my collection
that I have yet to review
  • Family trees and charts
  • Birth, marriage and death certificates along with diplomas and other original life event documents
  • Letters written to and from family members
  • Journals of trips taken
  • Family history books
  • Wills, trust documents and other legal papers
  • Papers and articles saved through the years
  • Memorabilia, miscellaneous items that were precious to family members, and other items of interest
  • Photographs, photographs and more photographs!

I've addressed my initial organizational methods (sorting by grandparent) in a previous post, "Getting Started and Getting Organized".  But I needed to get an even better grasp of what was in front of me, so I sorted each batch into two major categories.  I separated out the items that would provide me with genealogical information from those that told the family history.  Family history isn’t a full time pursuit – indeed, my work schedule sometimes gives me precious little time to devote to it.  This organization of resources allows me to prioritize my documents and better focus my energy whenever I have time to devote to this project.  

When I have free time, I can either record more genealogical information from one set of documents or organize more family history stories from the other.  I was lucky enough to already have all of this at hand – although luck is certainly relative!  Some of what I have is of no real interest and it has taken me years to get through about half of it all, with a large number of boxes still to go.   

When I started to go through these documents, I prioritized the genealogical information, as that segment contributes directly to my family tree.  I still take time, however, to go through the other category too, given how interesting it is and the way that it brings the family tree to life with real stories of the people listed in it.  In general, I’ll spend about 2/3 of my time on the genealogy and 1/3 on the family history.

The documents one has at hand are still just a part of the immediate resources we have available to us.  Family members and family friends will have stories they’ve been told, stories about their own experiences and papers of their own.  Interview these people! Ask them about their experiences and record their responses or take detailed notes.  Find out how your parents and grandparents met, what they remember about their childhood and any life events that may have had an impact on their lives.

Lewis Sturtevant Woodruff Jr
Patricia Mary Cassils Bunting
at the time of their wedding

I once came in contact with a fascinating man named Addison Merrick in Vermont, a descendant of one of my great-great grandfather’s sisters.  I contacted him because he had photos of that generation that I hoped to copy.  Then, in the course of our correspondence, he told me that he had attended my grandparents’ wedding as a young boy.  He was able to share his young impressions with me, adding a perspective of that event I’d never before heard. You never know who will have the next story to help you bring your ancestors to life.

If they live far from you, create an interview form for them to complete.  Besides the basics, ask open-ended questions, such as “what is a favorite memory from your childhood?” “What was your wedding like?”  I recently received a fascinating survey from my ten-year-old nephew.  He is participating in a heritage project at school and I am one of the two family members on whom he is reporting.  The survey questions are attached (see link below) and make a really interesting start at getting to know someone’s history beyond birth and marriage dates.

When you focus on the resources you have at hand, you may be surprised at how much interesting content you’ll find.  It’s there at your fingertips, all you need to do is to identify it!  Then you can start the process of transferring what you’ve found into charts online or in your own format.  I save mine in a pedigree chart I adapted from multiple charts I’ve tried over the years, adding spaces for additional information I want to capture, arranging the fields to suit my needs and formatting it as a PDF form.

A sample of the pedigree chart I adapted from multiple charts I've tried.
These charts are the basis for all of my genealogy documentation.

The information you’ve got at home may be just the beginning, but it could be a really good beginning.  Not only does it give you a start in terms of data, but it creates your own learning curve.  As you sort and review the papers at hand, you become better versed at family research.   You become familiar with the methods of documentation that work best for you, you learn to review broad-based documents for relevant information and you can take your time, regrouping, revising your methods and determining what works best for you. 

The documents you have in your possession and the people you know are the first stage in learning and getting into the groove of your research flow.  Once you’ve got a handle on the resources you have at home, you can start to work your way outward, broadening the search with more and more external resources, the Internet, organizations, libraries, courthouses, etc.  There’s no telling where the journey will take you.

[i] John’s entire set of journals, along with select other journals and papers from his family, were left to the New York Public library and can be seen, all 28 boxes of them, in their manuscripts department.

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