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    « Using Photos to Tell a Story in a Family History Book | Main | National Novel Writing Month Is Over. Now It’s Time to Edit! »
    Sunday
    Dec012013

    Writing Family History: Finding the Stories Within the Evidence

    Creating a family history book is a two part process.

    The first is, of course, research to gather as much information as possible about the ancestors who will be included in the book. Unfortunately, no matter how we might try to keep things organized research often takes on a somewhat random quality, running into brick walls here only to uncover unexpected discoveries elsewhere. While the events of an ancestor’s life are arranged on a simple timeline, there is seldom such a clear pattern to the way we learn about it.

    Courtesy of Artic Wolves under Creative Commons

    Step two then is deciding how to impose order on our rather disheveled mass of research when we begin to write about it. Posing two questions will help do it:

    • How do you know what you know?
    • How do the facts which you have gathered relate to other things you know?

    The first question helps you to evaluate the quality of the evidence you have gathered. Let’s see how the process might work. Begin by recognizing the different types of information at your disposal.

    We often focus primarily on factual data which can be fully documented using primary sources like vital records. The picture of an ancestor which results is often limited in scope including only things like birth place and date, marriage, occupation, children, property ownership, any relocations and death. Not always scintillating reading.

    So we try to supplement what we know with family stories gathered from interviews, letters, and journals. While still primary sources, these may not provide the same degree of certainty as a vital record, but they may provide insight into character, values, emotions.

    Finally, we can use the tools of logic to draw deductions and inferences from the evidence we have gathered above.

    Let’s look at how thinking about what we know might apply in an actual family history.

    The factual record indicates that

    • Great-great-grandmother and grandfather were Germans born in the second decade of the 19th century in the Prussian Grand Duchy of Posen., today the Polish province of Pozan.
    • They were married in 1836.
    • They lived in the town of Chodziesen where six of their eight children were born until 1852.
    • In 1852 they emigrated to the United States.

    That’s a bare-bones account at best, but there’s an interesting family story. Great-great-grandmother told her children and grand-children that she was a member of the minor nobility, and because her parents believed that she was marrying beneath herself they had refused to give their consent unless the newlyweds agreed to move to America. The romantic story was repeated until one of the grand-daughters recorded it in an informal account of the family history many years after the initial telling. It was for more than two generations the accepted explanation for the family’s settlement in the United States.

    But looking at the evidence, great-great-grandmother’s story was probably untrue. The simple fact that the family didn’t leave Chodziesen for sixteen years after the great-great-grandparents’ marriage indicates that the idea of a marriage conditional on emigration was likely a fiction.

    But before simply dismissing the story as nothing more than a fairy tale and heading off in search of the real reason the family left Prussia, ask yourself what you might learn from the fact that great-great-grandmother told it in the first place. What does it say about her? It seems to suggest that she was a woman with an ego. She probably wasn’t a member of the minor nobility, but wanted to retrospectively boost her social status and importance. We begin to get some insight into what kind of person she was. That knowledge may be very useful in understanding her subsequent actions.

    So if the accepted family explanation of what happened is proven false, it seems reasonable to infer that there was another reason the family chose to leave its home.

    At this point, we might ask our second question, How do the facts which you have gathered relate to other things you know? Answering it involves mapping the connections between the facts unique to the individuals on whom your research is focused and the economic, social and political context of their lives. So let’s consider how the time and place the ancestors we are considering lived might have shaped who they became and what they did.

    We know that between 1840 and 1860 one million Germans left their homeland and came to America. There were several reasons:

    • Population growth after the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 produced a significant increase in unemployment.
    • The common practice of dividing land among all male children upon their father’s death dramatically reduced the size of the property each inherited often making it difficult to make a subsistence living.
    • A multi-year series of crop failures, similar to the Potato Famine in Ireland, swept Germany in the 1840s.
    • Between 1820 and 1850 wages generally stayed constant, but prices on basic necessities rose by nearly 50%.
    • Germany underwent a revolution in 1848.
    • Faced with all of these problems, Germans received letters from countrymen who had previously emigrated to extolling the opportunities available there.

    So it hardly seems a leap to say that our family decided to leave Prussia because of problems related to poor economic conditions at home and a belief that circumstances across the Atlantic would be more favorable.

    It’s from this kind of analytical thinking that a solid framework for a family history emerges.

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    Reader Comments (2)

    Such stories may not so much have to do with ego, but with being "strangers in a strange land." Embroidery of the past may just give a bit of comfort for those who left family and friends behind. I found a few tales emanating from one of my grandmothers, who shortly after marriage moved several hundred miles from home. There were certainly letters and photographs exchanged, but in-person visits limited to the funereal occasions when her parents died. Immigrants from across the oceans seldom could ever return.

    Dec 8, 2013 at 6:27PM | Unregistered CommenterJade

    Thanks, Jade!
    I agree. I think that immigration or even a cross country migration involves re-inventing oneself. One's past is often a part of that reinvention. One of the challenges to family historians is to sort out what is true from the reinvention and then to think about what is reinvented says about their ancestor.
    Biff

    Dec 8, 2013 at 8:22PM | Registered CommenterNan Barnes

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