To construct a narrative family history one must gather the family lore and stories to supplement the facts drawn from vital records. Unfortunately, as most family historians know too well, the people we would like to ask about those stories are often no longer with us. When that’s the case, you need to reconstruct your family’s narrative from the limited records available.
Letters and diaries can be a rich source of family stories. Even a single letter can be a wonderful tool in understanding an ancestors time and place.
Letters and diaries are part of the cultural conversation of the times in which they were written. The topics they address are those which were important not only to their authors, but to their contemporaries. These personal writings can help us to understand both our ancestors’ connection to their times and the unique way they experienced those times.
There is often a difference in the way writers relate to their world reflected in the type of writing they did. Letters tend to be more reportorial, providing accounts of events or the authors plans. Diaries are more private reflections on the broader world likely to express the author’s aspirations, fears or emotions.
Diaries or journals like those of Mary Chesnut writing in South Carolina during the Civil War or Henry David Thoreau’s Walden which contains the author’s musings on the rise of industry and the changes it was bringing to the Massachusetts countryside provide commentary on broad social or cultural movements which produced dramatic change. Letters like those written by a soldier in World War II or a pioneer woman crossing the plains in 1846, on the other hand, report what has just happened, focusing on a specific moment in time at a specific place.
Combining the two forms of personal writing can provide an insight into both the individual ancestor who produced them and contemporary members of the family.
The knowledge letters and diaries provide allow the family historian to speculate about the values, goals and even the day to day actions and conversations that might have taken place among ancestors. These are the elements of a rich family narrative.
(This post was originally published November 3, 2013)