Places to Look for Engaging Details about Your Ancestors
If you’ve ever considered writing stories about your ancestors and family history, there’s no better time to start. Stories add depth to the family narrative and breathe life into your family tree. They also provide stability for the rising generation, giving them the knowledge and confidence that they, like their ancestors, can make it through hard times.
So, what makes for a successful story? RootsTech 2018 presenter Laura Hedgecock, from Treasure Chest of Memories, suggested that good writing and engaging details are both necessary ingredients for creating beloved and memorable family stories. It’s not too difficult to spruce up your writing skills, but where should you look for the details you’ll surely need to create the best stories?
Start with your own personal knowledge and resources. Do you have any oral histories, diaries, letters, or photographs? What about older living relatives you can interview? Gather what you can, and do your best to organize it in chronological order.
Is everything you know about your ancestor on their tombstone? For those with slim personal resources, Hedgecock’s presentation, “Choosing Details: The Secret to Compelling Stories,” provides a lot of ideas and suggestions for getting started on your research. She offered the following tip for those who are starting with very little information: “To get started, one of the easiest ways to find different layers to add on to a story is to look at the details, or the events we already know about, in chronological order. And then ask ourselves, what else was happening? What else was taking place in their family, in their community? What else was taking place in the nation and in the world?”
The following family history story is illustrative: “I have not found much information on my 4 times great-grandmother,” Hedgecock said, “but when I put the few things that I did find in the context of her family and of history, I see that when her husband marched off to fight in the Civil War, he left her not only in charge of the farm, but with 5 children as well, 3 of whom were under 5. … When [her husband] came home from war, the farm and the children were all intact. This context, these details, these layers tell me she accomplished no little feat.”
Here are a few things to consider about your ancestors as you get started with your research:
- Birth order
- Family expectations
- Health and hardiness
- Wealth or poverty
- Opportunities (or lack of)
- Historical, social, and political occurrences at that time
- Religious traditions
- Cultural traditions
Where can you look to discover some of the above information? Hedgecock gave the following suggestions:
- Census records: Here you may learn about the home and its value, if acreage was owned, if it was a farm, if they owned livestock, if they took in boarders, or if they had servants. You may also learn if family members lived in neighboring households.
- Estate inventories and wills: Was your ancestor bequeathing 100-acre parcels, or a cow and a feather bed? Here you’ll get a sense for their affluence or poverty.
- Historical newspapers: Many newspapers are now available online. Have a look, and see what you can find. “Sometimes you can even find a mention of your ancestors in the social news … or meeting minutes,” Hedgecock said.
- Military records: These records are a wonderful and abundant source for your research. Hedgecock suggested that you “Look at the context these records provide because they also provide what the military occupation was, where they were. You can sometimes even find postcards and letters written by the other service people.… So military records are a great place for [social] and historical context.”
- Maps: Using old physical maps and modern GPS maps such as Google can be a very complimentary way to learn about an area and how it has changed over the years. Hedgecock’s favorite maps are Sanborn Fire Insurance maps, which are available online at the Library of Congress for many U.S. cities. These maps show the outline of building structures and are color coded by building use. This can be a great way to build context surrounding your ancestor’s life.
- Plat or land survey maps: These can be available in many countries. They will show property lines but not building structures.
- Immigration lists and ship manifests: As you research these documents, Hedgecock suggests that you “look beyond the first page in the names. Look at the context—put that voyage in the context of history. Did your ancestors travel steerage? Did they go first class? How long was the voyage, and what time of year did they take it? What kind of ship was it? And look at the fellow passengers.” You may even consider looking for local newspapers announcing the arrival of the ship.
- FamilySearch.org Research wiki: This is a great online resource worth checking out.
- Local community sources: These sources are nearly endless. Look for your local historical and genealogical societies, community and family history libraries, genealogical societies, etc. There are even Facebook groups you can join.
- Museums: A museum is a great place to build context for your story. For example, Hedgecock shared that in the Detroit area there is a museum that shows what an 1890s kitchen looks like. You never know what you might learn.
- City directories: These resources occasionally have biographical sketches in the beginning. You might also be able to gather subtle information from advertisements included in the directory.
- School yearbooks: What activities did your grandparents participate in when they were in high school?
- Church minutes: Were your ancestors churchgoers? Some religious denominations keep wonderful records.
- Institutions: You may check the records of institutions such as universities. Hedgecock mentioned the Library of Science, the British Museum, and the Library of Congress.
- Blogs: According to Hedgecock there are well over 3,000 blogs providing helpful genealogical information. Have a look at the website geneabloggerstribe.com.
After you’ve gathered enough information to build up the context of your ancestor’s life, take a closer look at the details. Hedgecock suggests that you “look for details that orient readers in place, in time, and in history. We want to look for descriptive details about people and places. And of course, we want to find little things or big things that engage our reader’s curiosity, [and] engage their emotions.”
There are so many reasons to tackle writing family history stories, and everything you need is practically at your fingertips. Start creating stories today that will be cherished for generations to come.